Advocacy by civil society provides land ten-ure security for indigenous people

WCS support to land tenure for the O’rona community has resulted in a precedent-setting decision, where their indigenous land title has been recognized by the Cambodian courts in favour of an injunction to stop further illegal land grabs over their land.

The concept of indigenous land titling is central to the project’s theory of change. Rapid development has undermined indigenous people’s traditional way of life and connection to the land, resulting in their sale of tracts of land. This has occurred despite permanent alienation of land being contrary to traditional culture. The theory of change presupposes that providing legal permanence through the issuance of legal title will assure land security, allowing indigenous communities to live their traditional lifestyles on their traditional lands and recognize those potential direct benefits as a result of sustainable resource use.


Deforestation by illegal settlers in and around protected areas poses a significant threat to the long-term success of those reserves. WCS works with the indigenous communities in and around Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary to secure their future land tenure and position as responsible stewards of the natural resource base. The objective of the wildlife sanctuary is to conserve a critically important community of endangered species, the forest landscape they inhabit, and the livelihoods of the indigenous ethnic groups that live there.

A central aspect of the management strategy is to assist all interested villages to obtain communal land titles, thereby strengthening their ability to participate in conserving their own resources and collaborate with the government administrators in co-managing the protected forest.

The right to communal land titles is provided by the Cambodian Land Law (2001). WCS support for a village around the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary resulted in the first land title for a village inside what was then called a Protected Forest. Following that, a further five villages have received land title, including O’rona. Although legal land title was granted to the Phnorng Indigenous Community at O’rona village in 2013, there was no legal precedent for relying on such indigenous land title to prevent encroachment. WCS supported the legal and institutional  processes necessary for the O’rona community to bring a complaint against illegal settlement to the Cambodian courts.


The objectives of this activity were two-fold:

  • to strengthen the institution of the Indigenous Community Commission (ICC); 
  •  to facilitate the ICC’s access to legal support.

In this case, the issuance of land title was insufficient to stop illegal land encroachment. So through its ongoing institutional strengthening support to the ICC, WCS and the community agreed to work with the Vishnu Law Group to seek a court injunction to uphold the indigenous land title and prevent non-community members taking their land. If the case were successful, then the O’rona case would create a legal precedent that bearers of indigenous land titles elsewhere in Cambodia could follow.


Project results can be considered on three levels: in relation to the local community and the ICC; to indigenous land title holders elsewhere in Cambodia; and to indigenous law internationally:

  • Phnorng Indigenous Community in and around Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary: through the project, land tenure security has been enhanced over 4,804ha of indigenous land, with 648ha in the hands of the O’rona community. The project has developed the institution necessary to allow a collective voice in relation to that land security. During the court process, local people stood up in court – a formal institution that was previously inaccessible to them; spoke fluently in Khmer (not their native tongue); and laid claim to their own property. This was a huge step forward for a marginalized indigenous people in a hierarchical society.
  • The O’rona case can have important demonstration effect – offering an avenue for enforcing legal protection over indigenous land around Cambodia.
  • As the body of international law upholding rights of indigenous people around the world grows, this case may attract further international support to the indigenous people of Cambodia.
  • Immediate results are clear and attributable – as a result of the project, the indigenous people of O’rona enjoy greater legal security over their traditional lands. The less proximate results – whether the case will result in a legal precedent in Cambodia and beyond – are yet to be tested. Either way, a small investment of resources has had a large impact for an indigenous community; and may benefit many more if confirmed as a legal precedent.

  • Key to this result was a long capacity-building process, in order to create the social capital required to take such a case to the courts. There are a number of external risk factors that will affect the long-term impact of the case which are outside of the control of the project; most importantly, whether courts of higher instance will uphold the decision.

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