State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: In Cambodia's remote Ratanakkiri province, resource exploitation puts pressure on indigenous communities

Ploy Them is an ethnic Tampuan woman living in Ratanakkiri province in Cambodia's remote north-east.

In 2004, Them says the government awarded a land concession to a firm that quickly opened up a large gem mining operation. Her fellow villagers were allowed to stay, but some of the gem mine infringed on the local community forest. By the time the company left several years later, the water flowing in a nearby stream had become undrinkable. Today it has an oily sheen and villagers are afraid to bathe or wash their clothes in it. A well provided by an NGO broke down. They now rely on a basic well that villagers dug nearby.

'We don't drink the water any more. We used to wash in the stream, but the water is no good to use now. If the water is not clean, then it's not very good for living. The company was trying to look for gems and they made the water dirty. When people drank the water, they became sick.'

Ratanakkiri is a hotbed of activity for resource exploitation industries. In recent years, large-scale logging, rubber and agro-business plantations and mining operations have opened up as a result of economic land concessions granted by the government. In Ratanakkiri alone, authorities have issued land concessions to private firms for at least 157,000 hectares of land where indigenous communities live, according to estimates from a September report by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia. Naturally, these projects cause conflict with local indigenous communities. For example, in early 2013, multiple indigenous communities complained about at least three separate Vietnamese-run rubber firms, according to local media. Complaints included accusations of the bulldozing of community farmland and filling in a lake vital for food and irrigation. Such firms had been granted controversial economic land concessions in the area. Despite the resource development, the province remains one of the most impoverished in the country. Them worries about the health of her six children, because the nearest clinic is at least 15 km away.

'If my family gets sick, the nearest clinic is far away from here. This year, my son got very sick. He couldn't eat anything or even swallow. We spent a lot of money to get there. We had to take loans from other people just to pay for the trip. Now my daughter is sick with diarrhoea. I want to take her to the health clinic, but if we don't have money, what can we do? We just stay here and do what we can.'

Them says that recently a representative from a new company came to the village and showed residents a map of a land concession they planned to develop. Some of the concession overlapped with parts of the community's land. The company has not yet returned, but Them says people in her village are worried about the future.

'We really don't want to lose the land. If we lose the land, we will surely die. We can't live without land to farm. All the villagers want to stop the company because we can't afford to lose our land.'

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