A long-standing land dispute in Mondolkiri province, Cambodia, has finally come to an end. In September 2021, the signatories to the final agreements between the representatives from the indigenous communities in Busra commune and the rubber company Socfin Cambodia concluded a five-year mediation process that started in 2016.
“It is the final day: we are signing the agreements between the communities and the company. I represent members from Puchar village. Thanks to Socfin for their participation in this process until the end. Thanks to MRLG for their support since 2016 until now. It was our commitment to resolve the dispute through negotiation – not only me and the representatives here, but all members will respect the agreements. I hope the company will also respect it. On top of these agreements, I hope the company will continue to maintain a good relationship and cooperation with the villagers,” said Mrs Khleok Keosingieb, a community representative involved throughout the negotiation process.
The conflict started in 2008 when the government granted two economic land concessions (ELC) to the company for the development of a rubber plantation. These concessions overlapped the lands and forests managed by the local communities who had not been consulted in the process. The people lost their land and were affected in multiple ways by the investment, including loss of livelihoods, and access to important forest resources and cultural sites. A process for addressing grievances and compensating the villagers was initiated by the company. Although some compensations were paid for farmland and an agreement reached to protect some sacred sites, the process failed to fulfil the expectations of many community members. In 2016, the company and the affected people from five villages agreed to use a mediation process, an out-of-court dispute resolution mechanism, to help address the remaining issues in a systematic manner.
Over five years, the mediator team helped identify and clarify the various claims and facilitated a series of negotiations between the representatives of the communities and the company that have been instrumental in finding a common understanding about how to resolve the disputes. Despite delays and interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years, the parties have been able to pursue their discussions until they reached a final agreement. A signing ceremony was organised on 20-21 September 2021 between the representatives of the community members and Socfin Cambodia.
“The signing of these agreements between Socfin Cambodia and the representatives of the local communities represents the completion of a five-year long process through which both parties were able to address some very complex issues. This mediation gave us a platform to expose, understand and discuss grievances from both parties and come to mutual agreements settling all claims,” said Mr Jef Boedt, Socfin Cambodia General Manager. He added: “This achievement is the result of a collective effort, and we would like to thank the donors to this project, legal advisors to the communities and the team of mediators for providing both the time necessary and a safe space to engage discussions and find acceptable solutions for all. We hope that what we have achieved together can help other communities and organizations facing similar challenges.”
Alongside other villagers attending the ceremony, Mrs. Ngann Yin, a community representative, shared her satisfaction: “I am happy with the mediation result because we were not pressured or intimidated by any party. It was a mutual agreement between us, the communities, and the company. If it is not up to our satisfaction, the negotiation would not have ended today.”
It has not been simple to find common ground within the communities as the people were affected in different ways and in relation to different types of land: permanent agriculture and shifting cultivation lands within the plantation and in protected forests, customary use land, cemetery land, and spiritual forestland. The team from Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC) has played a fundamental role to help the members of the communities reach consensus on the content of the agreements, and for them to understand the complex legal terms and procedures.
“I am satisfied with the resolution, rather than prolonging the dispute further into the future. A mediation is a wise option to resolve our land disputes rather than lodging a petition through the court system. I am thankful to the legal advisors for their efforts in explaining the legal processes in a simple language. At first, we didn’t fully understand the issue which also made the process a bit too long, but we have now understood it well and everything turned well afterwards,” saidMrs. Korb Leit, a community representative.
“We see this process as a pilot project showing that peaceful negotiations and efforts put to understanding each other can provide mutual benefits for all. Socfin Cambodia’s mission is to contribute to the long-term socio-economic development of isolated rural areas, while strengthening and protecting communities’ rights, their quality of life and the environment. This is why, for us, the process does not end with the signing of these agreements, but we see this milestone as a foundation for the work Socfin Cambodia will continue to do with the local communities, so both parties can implement these agreements together in the future,” saidMr Jef Boedt.
The mediation was conducted by consultants recruited by NGO Forum on Cambodia and legal support was provided by LAC. The process was funded by MRLG with contributions for legal aid by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia. The mediation process benefitted also from the good cooperation of the commune and district authorities. Due to Covid-19 related restrictions, only limited attendance was allowed during the signing ceremony and the parties are committed to release the agreements publicly in the near future.