Story | 21 Aug, 2017

Indigenous youth group in Cambodia empowers community to stand up for their rights

Every day in the early hours of 2 AM, Srean Chheurn carries his nets, traps and poles to the nearby Sre Pok river to fish. Later in the day, he goes to the forest to collect flowers, mushrooms and cherries and hunt wild animals such as wild pigs and snakes.  

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Photo: © My Village Organisation

Mr Chheurn is one of many Punong indigenous people living in Kbal Romeas village, north-eastern Cambodia, who rely on the Sre Pok river and forest for their daily needs such as bathing, washing clothes and fishing. 

After a hydropower dam was built on the river, the villagers had to be resettled to a new area as a result of the displacement of their land by the dam’s reservoir.

Thinking they would have less access to natural resources when they moved to the new site, the villagers started stocking up on their daily needs. This resulted in a sudden increase in Illegal fishing and forest logging in areas surrounding Kbal Romeas village. There were also an increasing number of conflicts within the community as some of the villagers accepted the compensation provided by the government and moved to a new area, while some opposed the idea of the dam being built and refused to move. 

Chheurn was one of those who refused to move. He chose to stay in his village even though he knew that it would be flooded in September, when the dam operators release water into the river.

“This is my village, my home. I have everything here. If we move to the new site, we probably have to pay a lot more for food and water,” said Chheurn. “Also, all our ancestral spirits are here. We don’t want to be away from them.”

With support from several donors, My Village Organisation (MVi) supported the local Kbal Romeas Youth Group in advocating for the improvement of government policy on large-scale development projects.

A man in a hat made out of a large leaf speaks into a microphone       Photo: © My Village Organisation

Led by 29-year-old farmer Dam Somnang, the youth group organised numerous campaigns advocating that the government should respect indigenous peoples’ rights and stop investing in forestry activities that have negative impacts on local communities.

“Our youth group mobilised the community to organise awareness raising-events, develop a community plan, and identify areas where the community could move to temporarily when the village is flooded,” said Mr Somnang.  

“I would do anything to protect the natural resources that my community relies on,” said Mr Brach Rithy, another youth representative in Kbal Romeas village.

With the support of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, for which IUCN is an implementing partner in the Indo-Burma region, My Village Organisation will continue to strengthen the capacities of the youth group to further mobilise villagers to speak up for their village. The local NGO also plans on linking the youth group with the government so that community issues can be addressed at a higher level. 

This story was contributed by Solany Kry of MVi. Solany drafted the piece following the IUCN Asia Strategic Communications for Conservation Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand, which took place in July.

Founded in 2000, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a global leader in enabling civil society to participate in and benefit from conserving some of the world’s most critical ecosystems by providing grants for organisations to help protect biodiversity hotspots, Earth’s most biologically rich yet threatened areas. CEPF is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de DéveloppementConservation International (IUCN Member), the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan (IUCN State Member), the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.

IUCN is leading the second phase of CEPF's work in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) to form the CEPF Regional Implementation Team (RIT).