For Indigenous Peoples, Losing Land Can Mean Losing Lives

Ten years ago, the Cambodian government granted 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) of land to a Thai company to plant sugarcane. But this land was not empty.

Six hundred families were already living on it, growing rice and vegetables and foraging food and other goods from the nearby community forest. Over the next few years, the company cut down more than half the forest. While conducting evictions, staff and security forces looted rice fields and demolished or burned more than 300 homes. Many people lost their land and all their belongings. Parents sent their children to work in Thailand, unable to farm and afford school fees.

Villagers are trying to recover some of their losses through a class action lawsuit. But even if they are successful, it will provide little remedy for the felled forests, destroyed homes and disruption of community life.

This story is all too common to the 2.5 billion people living on indigenous and community lands. These lands, crucial for livelihoods, are protected under international human rights law and social and environmental standards: Indigenous Peoples may not be relocated from their land without their free, prior and informed consent, and customary and informal land rights should be respected. Many national laws also incorporate these principles. However, because many communities lack legal titles to their land, governments may consider it empty and allocate it to companies. Corporations and others may consider the land to be idle or underdeveloped.