Cambodia’s Indigenous communities renounce communal land titles for microloans

by JACK BROOK

  • Indigenous rural communities in northeastern Cambodia are struggling under debts that have ballooned from modest microloans with high interest rates.
  • Microlending as a means of increasing communities’ access to finance is strongly supported by the World Bank, but runs counter to efforts to grant communal land ownership of homes, farmlands and sacred forests — another World Bank initiative.
  • Entire villages have opted out of the communal land titling program because it would prevent them from using this land as collateral for microloans and selling land to outsiders, often to repay debt.
  • This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund.

TA HEUY, Cambodia — Cambodian farmers Nuoy and Nangkek were both in their late 20s when they took out their first microloan in 2018 for around $600 to help grow their crops. Today, the couple owe more than $10,000 to two financial institutions charging 18% annual interest.

Like many borrowers in a country with one of the highest rates of microloans per capita, the couple spiraled deeper into debt as they borrowed more money to keep up with monthly payments on existing loans. Nuoy and Nangek also resorted to borrowing from several neighborhood lenders who charged even higher interest.

Poor cashew harvests brought by heavy rains destroyed much of the only source of income the two had, forcing them last year to migrate to another part of the country to work in a car parts factory. The debt and stress have mounted.

“I can’t sleep, I’m always thinking about the loan, can I get the money, how can I pay back the debt — now we are spending all our time trying to get money,” says Nuoy, who along with his wife requested a pseudonym to avoid repercussions from authorities and the microlenders.

Most of the couple’s microloans had been collateralized by farmland in their ethnic Kreung and Brao village of Ta Heuy in northeastern Ratanakiri province, one of the regions of Cambodia most heavily populated with Indigenous ethnic minority communities. To repay their debts, they now plan to sell most of their farmland.

Their debt crisis parallels and highlights a turning point in Ta Heuy village.

For nearly a decade, the Indigenous community had sought to gain legal ownership of its customary lands and sacred forests. Then, in June 2022, at the final stage of the arduous bureaucratic process, the vast majority of the village — Nuoy and Nangkek included — thumb-printed a petition to withdraw the application, shocking authorities and alarming Indigenous rights NGOs.

Microloans are the primary reason, community leaders and residents told Mongabay.

The special form of land ownership the village renounced is known as an Indigenous Communal Land Title (ICLT) and was designed to protect against the threat of land loss and deforestation. Under the ICLT, individual families would be barred from selling their land outside the community.

As envisioned by Indigenous rights activists, the communal land ownership promised a bulwark of protection for villagers’ livelihoods and cultural heritage. Besides encompassing homes and farmlands, the communal land title was also designed to protect villages’ spirit and cemetery forests, and set aside “reserve forest” for future generations.

The World Bank, a proponent of the ICLT, argues that empowering Indigenous peoples to protect their customary lands and maintain their traditional agricultural practices better safeguards forests and biodiversity.

But now another policy championed for decades by the World Bank — the $16 billion microfinance industry in Cambodia — had come into conflict with the entire ICLT framework.

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