Ethnic Villagers Demand Help From Cambodian Government on Land Grab


2015.03.19
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cambodia-ratanakiri-logging-feb-2014.jpg Villagers and ADHOC investigators inspect freshly cut trees near Kunthy mountain in Ratanakiri, Jan. 2014.
RFA

Ethnic minority Phnong villagers in eastern Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province have threatened to hold a demonstration against a company they say has encroached on their land, calling on the government to help them protect their rights.

The villagers from Pechr Chenda district say Cambodian agro-developer K-First Company has strayed beyond its 500-hectare (1,235-acre) land concession, clearing what they as animists consider sacred forest and destroying their farmland.

They also accuse K-First of encroaching onto a road the villagers have used for years, which they say the company has now blocked off.

“We are planning a demonstration against the company if the local authorities refuse to resolve the dispute,” villager representative Khun Chanra told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday.

“We filed [our most recent] complaint against the company two months ago, but we have seen no solution.”

Khun Chanra did not provide a deadline for meeting villagers’ demands.

Sok Ratha, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the villagers in Pechr Chenda first filed a complaint against the company in October 2014 with the help of civil society groups, but said the government has yet to address their concerns.

“The local authorities have allowed the rich company to arbitrarily abuse the people,” he said.

Pechr Chenda district governor Noun Saron said local authorities are working to facilitate a resolution to the villagers’ complaints.

“We are working on the issue—I have sent officials to assist in the case,” he said.

Illegal logging

The threat of protest comes a day after another group of ethnic Phnong villagers in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima district held a press conference to express concerns over the illegal logging of their local forest by land concession developers.

According to the villagers from Sre Preah commune, new land concession companies have cleared about 80 percent of the forest, or around 9,000 hectares (22,240 acres) of land, and replaced it with rubber tree plantations.

Commune representative Trip Thoeum told reporters Wednesday that Vietnamese company Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1 was one of the worst offenders in the area, and had recruited Vietnamese workers and laborers from other provinces in Cambodia to clear forest in three villages.

“They have encroached on our main forest,” he said, adding that doing so had “negatively affected our living standards and culture.”

Phnong villagers traditionally collect sap from resin trees for sale in local markets, and said the destruction of the forest had hurt their income. Villagers typically generate between U.S. $750-9,000 annually from selling the sap.

Another commune representative named Vanna Kverk said the Vietnamese company had only received a 70-year concession of around 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres), but had expanded beyond that area into the community forest, where it has logged timber to sell to private companies.

“They are logging luxury wood and it is killing us,” he said.

Vanna Kverk suggested local officials were protecting the Binh Phuoc Kratie’s illegal logging activities, as villagers had repeatedly been blocked from entering the forest to confront the company by authorities.

Land seizure

Em Sopheak, of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), told RFA Benh Hoeurk Kratie had encroached on nearly 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of Sre Preah’s forest since 2012, as well as around 29 hectares (71 acres) of the Seima Protection Forest—a conservation project in the commune.

Keo Seima district forestry official Meak Rithy said he is investigating the illegal logging.

The Cambodia Daily quoted provincial governor Eng Bunheang as saying that in recent years, loggers from other provinces had flooded into the area, but were often treated with leniency by authorities.

“If we arrest those people, we just make a contract with them, then release them, because we don’t have enough prisons in which to detain those people,” he said.

For years the Cambodian government has encouraged the development of rubber plantations and granted land concessions to local and international companies to grow rubber and other cash crops for export, drawing criticism from both environmentalists and rights groups about environmental damage and land grabs.

The seizure of land for development—often without due process or compensation to displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.

Reported by Ouk Savbory and Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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