Tucked away in the dusty red hills at the border with Vietnam, a few dozen wooden longhouses form Peak Village, a community that has little enough in common with the rest of Cambodia, much less the representatives of a foreign corporation hailing from India.
The houses, propped up on stilts, are home to a few hundred ethnic Jarai. Numbering about 200,000, most of them living in Vietnam’s Central Highlands but with a sizable population across the border here in the province of Ratanakiri, the matrilineal Jarai are among the 17 diverse ethnic groups that are known in Cambodia as the Khmer Loeu, or upland Khmer.
Disturbing the village’s isolation is Mesco Gold, an Indian mining company that’s setting up operations here to extract plentiful gold resources that were discovered recently. After an often contentious relationship between the villagers and another mining company scuppered prior efforts to extract the gold here, Peak Village community members and Mesco Gold both identify constant communication and local participation as the key to future success.
“The companies need to understand the culture of the village,” says Sev Jin, the chief of Peak Village. “They need to learn who the elders are. They need to learn what the traditions are. Once the companies learn about these things, there won’t be any problems.”
Perhaps the same could be said of those who try to help communities like Peak Village. But unlike in many other similar scenarios in other parts of the world – where foreign aid swoops in then swoops out, leaving little impact on the ground, or a large NGO from the capital shows up to impose a viewpoint that often doesn’t translate to local circumstances – people are trying to do things differently here.
Lyneth Sar and Sakphea Houn, from Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), a Cambodian organization that believes in helping communities develop themselves from the grassroots level, are working with villagers in Peak Village. DPA is a partner of the Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE) network, who share a belief that in order to learn what the problem is and how to deal with it, you need to listen to the people who are actually being affected most.
Development and Partnership in Action (DPA) has been working to improve the quality of life of the rural people in Cambodia, especially the indigenous people in the north-eastern part of the country.
The USAID-funded MPE project facilitates this listening by serving as a convener whose role is to foster constructive dialogue between all stakeholders. In Peak Village, that means engaging not just the villagers, but also Mesco Gold and local government officials like Sev Jin. MPE encourages all of the stakeholders to use the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, which, if done right, can ensure meaningful public participation in development decision-making and minimize negative impacts for all parties.
As part of that process, Lyneth and Sakphea are in Peak Village to run a workshop on the EIA process for about 20 women. The workshop, one of several DPA has organized, is intended to strengthen their understanding of the process as well as their role and capability to participate in it. These women are, as Sev Jin acknowledges, the great missing voice in negotiations and activism, often unable to participate in development decisions because they need to stay home to look after the family, or because their husbands are not interested in letting them engage in these public matters.
One highlander woman spoke emotionally about the need to look after their land, especially their forests. For the animist Jarai, forests are a place of worship and a source of sustenance; not just an environmental concern but a spiritual one. Her comment reinforces Sev Jin’s statement about of the importance of understanding local culture.
“There are things that seem not very important to others that are important to our people – like our cashew nut trees being cut down,” he says. “It’s my job to deal with these types of complaints.”
In the past, a lack of attunement to the concerns of locals have led to the delay, or even the downfall, of large-scale infrastructure or industrial projects. MPE is betting that establishing the EIA process – a thorough, all-inclusive assessment of the potential impacts of the project and ways to alleviate them – as a regional standard will do away with many of the stumbling blocks such projects often face.
Mesco Gold is aware it’s navigating unfamiliar turf. Despite their parent company’s experience running operations all over the world, Ganga Raju, one of the managers on site here, is at pains to stress that each new location brings unique challenges, and unique opportunities. In few places will this be as true as Peak Village.
As is often the case around the world, the indigenous people here face a number of challenges. Ratanakiri has the worst health indicators in Cambodia – the life expectancy is 39 for men, and 43 for women. A number of diseases, such as cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis, which have been brought under control in much of the developing world, are still pervasive here. Ten percent of children die before the age of five.
Add to this the complexities of having to negotiate the start of a long-term mining operation in their area. Indigenous people – typically not integrated into the rest of society and lacking official documentation, such as land titles, that would protect them – can be vulnerable to detrimental impacts when companies extract the resources upon which their communities are located.
Peak Village is hoping to buck the trend, though. With DPA focusing on equipping the indigenous people here with the knowledge and resources they need to advocate for their rights and Mesco Gold professing a desire to do right by the community, Ratanakiri’s first mining project has the potential to become a positive example of collaborative development and dispute resolution in an industry that too often makes headlines for the wrong reasons.
As a start, Mesco is appealing to the villagers by offering to invest in development that would help ameliorate some of the community’s socio-economic and health concerns. With the nearest source of drinking water a long, discouraging walk away for the residents, Mesco has promised to set up drinking water in the Jarai’s homes. They’ve also proposed to provide English language classes, something they believe would improve employment opportunities and strengthen livelihood prospects. But most importantly, they are hiring local intermediaries who will help them understand what the villagers want, and, in turn, help inform the villagers of their intentions.
“We want to make sure the immediate neighbors – the villages nearby, benefit,” says Mesco’s Ganga Raju. “We try to get labor from the area. They benefit from the employment, and we benefit because getting labor from abroad is costly. It’s always cheaper to train local labor.”
Raju says the company is aware of the potential pitfalls ahead if they fail to get the public to buy in to what they’re doing.
“Local people should not feel that we are robbing them,” he says. “We should never create a fear that ‘these people have come to rob us’. We should try to educate them about what we are trying to do, about how our work can help them.”
To help ensure that the villagers are aware of what Mesco and other private sector mining players are doing and to facilitate productive multi-stakeholder dialogues, DPA and other civil society organizations are building a network of community mining focal persons (CFMPs) in Cambodia. These CFMPs are locals, often from indigenous communities, who have a stake in learning about and taking an active role in the mining process in light of the many mining operations popping up around them. These CFMPs, who have gained both knowledge of the mining industry and essential communication skills from DPA trainings, serve a critical intermediary role between villagers, the private sector, and even the government. The CMFPs put the knowledge and skills from DPA’s trainings to use, advocating for positive changes to the mining companies’ development plans and activities.
Building local trust, though, is a long slog, not just for Mesco but also for DPA.
“At first they barely talked to me,” says Sakphea. “They did not respond when I talked to them, they just talked to their friends. Now they are not shy at all, except for a few people. They can now analyze the problem that they face, but more importantly they can meet and discuss the issues with the companies on more level ground now.”
Sev Jin recognizes the need to educate himself about the mining industry and the EIA process so that he and his fellow villagers can ensure their voices are heard and concerns acknowledged and addressed. Ask the Peak Village chief what he considers to be his main responsibility, and he’ll tell you it boils down to one thing: solving problems. These days, the problems aren’t what they used to be; Sev Jin has been finding himself spending less and less time solving neighborhood disputes, and increasingly more time becoming familiar with indigenous rights, concepts such as Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, and processes like EIA.
“I didn’t really know anything about indigenous people rights – that’s something I’ve had to learn myself from NGOs!” Sev Jin says.
His words reflect the reality on the ground in many of the places where MPE’s network operates. Development projects have multiple stakeholders with shared challenges: a lack of information and transparency, much miscommunication, and minimal opportunities for meaningful public participation that lead to conflicts and delays. But shared challenges can lead to a shared goal, albeit a daunting one: to create a new environment where all actors, from the grassroots to the boardroom, can engage on level ground.
MPE is working with civil society, government and business partners across the Mekong region to improve public participation in development. DPA is also part of MPE’s Regional Technical Working Group on EIA, which is drafting Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), to ensure communities such as Peak Village are included in development processes across the region. MPE promotes Shared Solutions for Responsible Development.