Active and Engaged: Indigenous Women Make Their Voices Heard with Cambodian Mining Company
Women – especially indigenous women – are often the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of development projects. Socheat Penh from Mekong Partnership for the Environment shares the story of Sok Sreymom, an indigenous woman in Cambodia who is turning that vulnerability into active engagement with a mining company. MPE partner Development Partnership in Action (DPA) helps communities engage in Environmental Impact Assessment processes. And Sreymom’s community is a vivid example of how active engagement can minimize harms and improve outcomes – especially for indigenous women.
During my visit to Peak village in March 2016, I met Miss Sok Sreymom, a 27-year-old who left school when she was in grade six because her province’s high school is too far from her small village of a dozen or so wooden longhouses. Sreymom lives in O’Kan Village, a remote, dusty hill town in Lom Phat district in Cambodia’s northeast Ratanakiri province, at the border with Vietnam. Sok’s family grows vegetables and she has been helping her mother to sell them at the market since dropping out of school.
Despite her lack of formal education, Sreymom has become a leader in her small, indigenous community. In 2009, Sreymom joined the community’s rice saving group, where she led a committee that initiated a shift from saving rice to saving capital. Sreymom’s vision was that the community members’ livelihoods would be more secure if they began saving capital to run small scale business rather than just saving rice for food security. As a result of this shift, the nine members in the group have saved approximately 12 million Riel (about USD 2,900). Recently, Sreymom also joined and was selected to be a marketing manager for an organic vegetables group. Under her leadership, the group has developed a sound business plan that has brought them recognition from the Provincial Governor and a booth in the province’s night market at which to sell their organic vegetables. But Sreymom’s dedication and drive to better her community doesn’t stop at O’Kan’s agricultural endeavors. Sreymom wants to be an advocate for her village and others particularly the women, in the process to determine how a new development project will affect their communities.
Mining map in Cambodia, Open Development Cambodia
For the past few years, Ratanakiri province has been the center of attention for the mining sector due to its underground treasure. With a gold mining company setting up operations nearby, the women of affected communities, like Sreymom, have expressed an interest in learning about the social and environmental impacts that would be caused by mining as well as the steps being taken by the mining company – in this case, India’s Mesco Gold – to mitigate those impacts. Although Sreymom is originally from O’Kan village, she traveled to Peak village three times to learn more about community development and proposed mining activities in the area. Sreymom has shared her knowledge and experience about FPIC, EIA and mining development with Peak villagers. She’s also helped them with monitoring activities around the mining project.
I traveled to Peak village with MPE partner Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), whose objective was to provide training on environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the women of Peak village. With support from MPE, DPA organized series of training for the local women to encourage them to participate in the EIA process to strengthen their knowledge and ability to effectively participate in the development process.
Women, especially indigenous women, are among the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of development projects. Compared to men, women have fewer opportunities to be involved in the development of their communities or society. Because for many, the majority of their time is at home taking care of their kids and doing housework, or doing tasks that take them out of the village, such as collecting forest products like firewood or vegetables, women find it difficult to be participate in meetings determining the future development of their communities. Since women are often not present to raise them, issues such as education, health, and decision making roles are not considered or integrated effectively into development project planning and design. As a result, women often become even more exposed to the negative impacts of development projects than men, for example, women and children are more vulnerable to chemical substances used in gold mining processing or social violence resulting from the changes to the community. They are also hard hit when access to forest products such as fruits, nuts or plants is affected. Thus, there is a significant role for women to play in policy development. Women can and should be key contributors to development projects from the beginning stages, including planning and design, through to implementation.
Location of Peak Viallage in Rattanakiri province, Cambodia on Google Map
Despite their interest learning more about how gold mining will affect them, the women of Peak village find themselves in this situation – one common to women in developing countries worldwide. They spend most of their time working in the field and taking care of their households, so most of them have never attended any development planning meetings and were unaware of the EIA process. Luckily the women in Peak village have both the DPA EIA training as well as a champion among them –Sreymom, who is enthusiastic and determined to contribute to the sustainable development of her beloved community.
DPA and other civil society organizations are building a network of community mining focal persons in Cambodia – locals, often from indigenous communities, who have a stake in acting as a watchdog in the numerous mining operations that are popping up in their region. In early 2015, Sok became a community mining focal person (CMFP) and has already been recognized as one of the most active. She has attended many meetings and trainings organized by DPA and its Extractive Industry Social Environmental Impact (EISEI) network, learning about the role of a CMFP, human rights and rights of indigenous people, rules and regulations related to mining, and the EIA process.
Mr.Mam Sambath, Executive Director of DPA, believes communities – especially women – need to be included in Environmental Impact Assessment processes.
At the first few DPA EISEI events she attended, Sreymom found it difficult to understand what people were talking about because they often used very technical terms. There were also times when she felt that the meeting facilitators were representing the mining company. However, she realized later on that she had misunderstood and that the facilitators were explaining both the positive as well as negative impacts caused by mining projects. Eventually, though, Sreymom found that her knowledge and understanding of the extractive industry and its relationship to human rights, regulations, and the EIA process has improved.
Sok in action, providing EIA training at Peak Village in Rattanakiri province, Cambodia Credit: MPE
Sreymom would like to share this vital knowledge with her community and others. However, initially she found that they did not listen or pay attention to her. But she was unfazed, telling me, “Even though I am a young lady, I do not feel different from other youth, or even male youth. I am not shy of asking information from the companies or government officials and local authority. I want to try to do as much as I can.” Through her commitment and persistence, she is making progress little by little. She told me, “If I could understand at least 40-50%, and I could make the community understand at least 20-30% of what I know, this is better than nothing.” As a result of her commitment, her community has started to value and support her efforts by joining her meetings and trainings.
Sreymom is satisfied with what she has done so far, and has already exceeded her own expectations. She feels that the most important benefit she has gained from working with DPA EISEI is the appreciation of the communities for her contribution. Sreymom is deeply committed to helping her community and others to be able to cope with social and environmental impacts from development projects – so much so that she told me “In the future, I will continue to help my community even as a volunteer and even if I have to spend my personal time instead of earning my living through selling vegetables.”
Sreymom’s next task is helping the DPA team to organize a training for indigenous women so they, too, can be informed about and participate in decisions affecting the future of their community, particularly in regard to gold mining.
Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE) supports DPA and other organizations to work together with business and governments for more responsible development. MPE supports constructive engagement among governments, business and civil society to ensure responsible development in countries in the Lower Mekong sub-region.