A China-backed sugarcane plantation in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province is destroying the livelihoods of residents, according to ethnic minority villagers and civil society groups, despite official claims that the project will bring prosperity to the region by creating new jobs.
The first phase of the project, a sugar mill and refinery recently opened by China’s Rui Feng Cambodia International Co. Ltd., is capable of processing 20,000 tons of sugarcane into 2,000 tons of refined sugar daily, making it one of Asia’s largest sugar producing facilities.
The U.S. $360 million facility located on a 215-hectare (530-acre) plot in Preah Vihear’s Chheb district employs around 1,000 people—a number which is expected to grow when Rui Feng adds a second production line in a bid to export sugar to the European Union.
It’s the first stage of a U.S. $1.5 billion project that will see a power plant, fertilizer factory, hospital and school constructed over the next three years on nearly 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) of land in the area.
The plot is part of a 9,000-hectare (22,240-acre) economic land concession (ELC) granted to the company by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in 2011, but later reduced by 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) amid land disputes with area residents.
The mill and refinery will process sugarcane grown on Rui Feng’s concession, as well as on land granted to its four sister companies, Lan Feng Cambodia International Co. Ltd., Heng Non Cambodia International Co. Ltd., Heng Yue Cambodia International Co. Ltd., and Heng Rui Cambodia International Co. Ltd. The companies—all subsidiaries of Hengfu Group Sugar Industry Co., Ltd. based in China’s Guangdong province—were granted more than 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) in Preah Vihear’s Tbeng Mean Chey, Chheb and Chey Sen districts through five separate 70-year ELCs in 2011.
The move allowed Hengfu to circumvent a law that prevents any one entity from receiving a concession of more than 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) from Cambodia’s government.
At an inauguration ceremony for the mill and refinery in March, Hun Sen said developers would create jobs for “up to 14,000 workers” and benefit residents by bringing new infrastructure to the region. China’s official CCTV has said the sugar factory will create a “fair value market” for sugarcane grown by the people of Preah Vihear.
But while Hun Sen and the Chinese media have tried to portray the project as a benefit of increasingly close ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing, representatives of civil society groups and residents of Preah Vihear told RFA’s Khmer Service that it was destroying local livelihoods.
Tep Tim, a representative of the Kuoy ethnic minority in Tbeng Mean Chey’s Pra Me commune, said the living standards of area residents had “dramatically declined” ever since 2012, when Rui Feng began to bulldoze the land and forests traditionally used for agricultural production.
She said local villagers were used to a peaceful way of life earning stable income from rice fields and forest products, but now “live in constant worry and fear” after they were forced to take jobs at the sugar mill after resources began to disappear.
“If we don’t work due to fever or illness, what do we get to live with?” she asked.“When we worked the rice fields, if we were sick for 10-20 days we could still eat because we had plenty of rice in our barn or we could sell it for cash … But now the company has caused us to become poor and worried, and we are no longer safe going to our farmland.”
According to Tep Tim, many of her community’s youth feel compelled to abandon their education in order to help their parents with daily work. In some cases, she said, children had left school to guard farmland out of fear that Rui Feng will bulldoze it, while others relocated in search of work to help support their families.
Repeated requests for interviews by RFA about the development project went unanswered by Preah Vihear officials, though provincial governor Oum Mara recently told local media authorities had “resolved the impasse [of land disputes with the local community] by trimming the parcel awarded to the company and transferring ownership back to the people.”
Tep Tim disagreed, saying provincial authorities had “never provided fair compensation” to local residents, pressured them to grow sugarcane, and tried to prevent them from voicing their grievances.
“Samdech [Hun Sen] doesn’t know what’s going on—he believes the reports [from local authorities] which say the development is progressing well, but it isn’t,” she said. “The company didn’t consult with the people, assess social and environmental impacts, or get an endorsement from the people. How can things be good?”
Tep Tim said that when Cambodia’s central authorities agreed to the sugarcane development project, local authorities complied, but didn’t ensure it was implemented correctly. “Now, when we raise complaints [local authorities] accuse us of being obstructers, secessionists and creators of a state within a state,” she said.
“We don’t know anything of secession. All we know is that we raise these complaints for the sake of our stomachs and our stomachs are hungry.”
Residents of nearby Chheb district also complained that their traditional sources of income—mushrooms, leaves, vines, resin, fruits and fish from local forests and creeks—had largely dried up since Rui Feng began developing the land some four years ago.
Poek Sophan, program manager for land issues with the Punlok Khmer civil society group, estimated that since 2012 some 1,000 families from 20 villages in Tbeng Mean Chey, Chheb and Chey Sen districts had been directly impacted by the Preah Vihear sugarcane project.
In a February 2011 letter, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers notified the five Chinese companies granted land concessions that failing to meet a certain set of requirements related to the development would render their contracts null and void.
The requirements included producing a development plan endorsed by an expert institution and supported by local authorities and residents prior to clearing concession land, keeping land parcels along waterways unaltered, and maintaining adequate forestation in concession zones.
The letter also specified that developers should ensure people living in the concession zone benefit from the project, which it said must be suspended in any location where there is a conflict of ownership with local residents until the dispute is resolved.
However, an investigation by a forum of civil society groups found that the five companies had bulldozed rice fields without engaging residents, filled in natural waterways and replaced them with deep canals that villagers could not use, and cut down millions of trees without disposing of them properly.
Residents of the development zone have also complained that the project has not benefited them because the companies offered only low-pay or temporary work, or did not provide them with jobs at all. Officials at Rui Feng have either failed to respond to inquiries about the project or told RFA they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the company.
Representatives of ethnic minorities in the area said that ongoing land disputes and the lack of assistance from local authorities had convinced them the sugarcane project will not result in the kind of benefits touted by Hun Sen and the Chinese media.
They called on the government to return their ancestral land so that they could use it as they had for generations, rather than enduring “servitude and slavery” brought on by Chinese developers.
Reported by Yang Chandara for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.