About 300 villagers from a commune in remote northeastern Cambodia started erecting a fence on Thursday around land they claim that a Vietnamese company has encroached upon, leaving them without a safe haven should floods occur, those familiar with the situation said.
The villagers from Chey Uddom commune, Lumphat district, in Ratanakiri province are building the fence around 200 hectares (494 acres) of higher land that they claim was taken from them by the Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Lumphat.
Say Koeung, a village representative, said the higher land is very important for residents and livestock for emergency evacuations during floods.
“The company is clearing land in the areas now, [and] villagers are concerned, so they are building markers,” said Say Koeung. “The villagers are afraid that the company will take the land that is used for our evacuation."
RFA could not reach Hoang Anh Lumphat for comment.
Hoang Anh Lumphat is part of a family of companies that have been repeatedly accused of illegal logging. Its parent company, privately-owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai, has leased huge tracts of land for plantations in Cambodia and neighboring Laos.
The villagers from Chey Uddom commune avoided a possible violent confrontation when they started fencing off the land because the company’s workers were not at the site.
In mid-February, a government representative agreed to omit the 200 hectares from a land concession held by Hoang Anh Lumphat so the villagers could retain it for evacuation purposes. But the company still tried to occupy the land, villagers said.
‘Land is already registered’
Lumphat district governor Kong Srun said local authorities could not give the land back to the villagers because the Ministry of Environment had already given it to the company.
He also accused the villagers of breaching the law by erecting markers in the area.
“The land is already registered, and the company is taking control of it,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Since the land is already registered, it is hard to make any request.”
Kong Srun added that villagers must now ask Hoang Anh Lumphat’s director about the matter.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator of the national rights group Adhoc, called the government’s decision “a failure” that was now affecting villagers’ lives, and said the 200 hectares of land was a matter of life and death for the villagers during floods.
“When the company refused to comply with the national decision, it could have led to a land dispute, and people are upset,” he said. “The land that the company is clearing is a safe site for villagers."
In 2013, a private company transferred a land concession covering a total 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) to Hoang Anh Lumphat. So far, villagers have demanded that the government cede to them 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) from the company’s concession.
For years the Cambodian government has granted land concessions to both domestic and international companies to grow rubber and other cash crops for export, drawing criticism from both rights groups and environmentalists of land grabs, evictions of farmers and environmental damage.
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, Laos and Myanmar.
Reported by Sok Ratha of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.