Land Disputes Settled Through Mediation

A long-term land dispute between indigenous villagers in Mondulkiri and a private company over community forests has been resolved in a ground-breaking mediation settlement – a first for Cambodia.
Indigenous villagers from Bousra commune and Socfin-KCD company ended their long-lasting land disputes in a ground-breaking mediation settlement - a first for Cambodia. Kiripost via MRLG
Indigenous villagers from Bousra commune and Socfin-KCD company ended their long-lasting land disputes in a ground-breaking mediation settlement - a first for Cambodia. Kiripost via MRLG

In 2008, Maly Kim, of Pu Lu community, was among many indigenous people in Mondulkiri’s Bousra commune, who waged protests against the alleged invasion of their traditional community forest lands by a private company, to which the government has granted an economic land concession (ELC) in the area.

At times, the protests turned violent with some of the company’s machinery being torched, Kim recalls.

“The land dispute first erupted in 2008, and at that time, the dispute involved the company called Khov Chealy, but later on, it emerged as the Socfin company. There were protests and some bulldozing machinery was burned at that time,” Kim told Kiripost.

There had been numerous attempts to settle the disputes, but solutions could not be reached. This led to the disputes continuing for years, said Kim, 40, who is married with two sons and two daughters.

Independent mediation introduced

However, in 2017, the Mekong Region Land Governance Project (MRLG) – a regional organization based in Laos PDR – introduced a mediation approach to the land disputes in Mondulkiri province.

This brought the disputing parties – local indigenous communities and the Socfin-KCD company – to negotiations in a relatively lengthy process that culminated in agreements to end the dispute this year.

A joint statement was released on September 27 regarding the settlement through independent mediation between local communities in Bousra commune, the Economic Land Concessions Varanasi, Sethikula (Socfin-KCD Company) and Coviphama.

The mediation aimed to introduce alternative conflict resolution and was a pilot project for the Kingdom. It was a voluntary collaborative process where the two parties identified issues, developed options, considered alternatives, and developed consensual agreements, according to the statement.

The communities received support from the Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), and observers and witnesses included village elders, Bousra Commune Chief and a representative of the United Nations Office for Human Rights in Cambodia (UN OHCHR). The negotiations were mediated by the Independent Mediation Team (IMG). Discussions were conducted separately for each community and organized by land tenure type.

According to the joint statement, regarding the communal land, which includes spirit forests, sacred forests, cemeteries and reserve land, the company and the communities of Pu Teut, Pu Raing, Pu Char and Pu Lu have mutually agreed on the location, size and boundaries of 511 hectares of communal land with the ELCs.

The representatives of the communities have agreed to submit an application for registration of these lands under communal land to the Royal Government to be recognized by the government and in accordance with the law, the statement added.

Settlements were also reached for other types of land, such as along the streams inside the ELCs and related farmlands and fields, as well as for the issue of smallholder rubber families.

“Through the solutions agreed upon during the mediation process and listed in this joint-statement, all parties have resolved together all grievances related to the cases negotiated,” the statement said.

According to MRLG, the mediation was its first and only mediation project in Cambodia. MRLG provided financial support to NGO Forum on Cambodia and the Independent Mediation Group (IMG) to make the mediation process possible, and to Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC) to provide legal support to the indigenous communities involved in the disputes with the company. These implementing organizations are all based in Cambodia.

Not everyone in favor of the mediation

While many from the five villages in Bousra commune chose the mediation path, others sought to continue the battle via the court.

Lawyer Sek Sophorn, of R & L Law Office, told Kiripost that he had been asked by some 80 indigenous families in Bousra commune to provide legal advice regarding their dispute with Socfin-KCD. He said, finally, the families decided to file a lawsuit with the French court, with support from a foreign lawyer.

Sophorn said he welcomed the results of the mediation in Mondulkiri province, saying the parties did benefit from the settlements.

“I congratulate them on their settlement. I think it’s good if the process is genuine and in good faith,” Sophorn said. “The parties do benefit from the settlement.”

In an email response to Kiripost via a public relations agency, Socfin-KCD said all individuals claiming to have disputes with the company had been given the opportunity to join [the mediation].

“If some chose not to engage in the process, it was their free and informed decision, which we respect,” the company said.

“We believe that the outcome of the mediation shows that through transparency, negotiations and collective efforts aimed at understanding each other, it is possible for local communities and the private sector to reach mutual benefits for all.”

Potential alternative dispute resolution outside court

Commenting on the mediation case in Mondulkiri province, Antoine Deligne, Deputy Team Leader of the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) Project, which funded the mediation process, said the experience shows if there is good will from both sides, no conflict is intractable.

“In the case of long-lasting conflicts that have not been or could not be resolved through the court system, a mediation is a very useful mechanism,” said Deligne.

In Cambodia, the country’s courts have reportedly faced the issue of backlogged cases and the government has been working on policies and regulations to promote out-of-court dispute resolution to deal with the problem.

According to Ministry of Justice spokesperson, Chin Malin, work has been underway to introduce legal frameworks for out-of-court dispute resolution mechanisms, such as mediation, in Cambodia as an alternative dispute resolution.

“Ending a dispute through an out-of-court mechanism like mediation is good. It saves time and money. It creates harmony as the parties voluntarily accept to end their dispute. So, I think ending a dispute through mediation is best,” said Malin.

“Not all disputes must necessarily go through the courts to be solved. So, if disputes can be solved through mediation, it is a relief to the courts as they still face many financial and human resource constraints,” added Malin.

For Maly Kim, an end to the long-lasting land dispute in his community gives him hope for the future.

“My Pu Lu community volunteered to participate in the mediation to find a solution so that our village, our commune, and our local community can have development just like other parts of the country.”