Around the world, 70 million indigenous people depend on forests for their livelihoods and spiritual practices.  However, because they have so many fantastic natural resources, the forests that have been used for food and other provisions for centuries in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are now threatened.  

South East Asia has become a ‘hotspot’ for forest conflict because authorities don’t often recognise traditional land.  Communities have been deprived of their right to manage their land, leaving it vulnerable to deforestation and illegal grabbing.  Often governments prioritise forest access for businesses rather than protecting the rights of the indigenous communities. 

There are some brilliant groups working with communities to help them protect their land and their homes. Unfortunately, these groups often don’t have enough money or resources. The people involved have to work really hard to support themselves and their families. Their work to protect the forests can only happen in their spare time and so it becomes really difficult to keep it all going. They do this at great personal risk, facing harassment, criminal accusations and even assassination. 

 

The SPIRIT project has been working in the region since January 2019, and it has already made very good progress in all three countries. However, with the onset of Covid-19, it had to change the way it worked.  Training was moved online, and the project needed to make sure the Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs) were able to use digital technology to support their work in a safe and effective way. 

San Vansen (58) is from the Kouy indigenous community in Cambodia.  She and her husband have five children and are farmers.  San became an HRD in 2000 when her village started a community forest to protect their livelihoods.  Since 2019 San has had training and support from the SPIRIT project, and her team has also received a small grant from the Hardship and Equipment fund.  With the money they were given they were able to buy cameras, hammocks, shoes, raincoats and petrol.  Recently, to prevent a company illegally grabbing some of their land, San managed three HRD teams to patrol the area, prepare a petition letter, and to communicate with other parties involved on both sides of the dispute.  San says “if we have women leading the patrols, then I hope more women, including younger women, will join us because they feel safe and motivated”.

Thouen Sokhet is 35 years old and lives in the Orang district of Cambodia.  He has been a youth peer educator in his village since 2008.  He says he followed in the steps of older people in his community, especially his father, mobilising the community to protect their land and their forest. When the SPIRIT project began in Thouen’s community in 2019, he told us that he was able to access support from a wider network and also from other communities, so he no longer feels so alone in his work.  Since then, he has set up new activities, including youth camps in the forest.  

“I set up forest camping because young people enjoy gathering together and exchanging ideas. When young people are camping in the forest, it reduces illegal logging. Working with the young people helps change their attitudes in terms of forest protection, and proactively builds up their leadership skills so that they can carry on the forest conservation and communal land protection that our elders began”. 

Photo credit: Rik Delnoye

Funded by the European Union