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Citizens’ Action against Forceful Land Acquisition in Cambodia
Priyanka Singh and Kaustuv K Bandyopadhyay1
Significance of Land in the Lives of People in Cambodia
Land is the spiritual base of the Cambodian rural population. Any form of misfortune, disease or death is
looked upon as a result of some ill deed performed which is detrimental to the land. Besides this the
forests provide an important source of livelihood. With the land concessions in place, the people are
often stopped from accessing these forests to collect non timber forest produces. At times, the compensation provided by private companies is not in proportion to the loss, or sometimes the land is not fertile and has limited access to a source of water. What has been shared (during interviews) and can be found in numerous studies/reports is the use of force and intimidation by companies taking control of the land. Company officials are often accompanied by armed guards and the villagers are just told that henceforth the land belongs to the company with no discussion or regard for their rights.
In Cambodia as in many other countries land is an extremely important resource and valued for its Ratanakiri Province rootedness. Today people in rural and urban Cambodia are being systematically alienated from their lands, homes and livelihood. This change is taking place because of demographic and economic pressures but the people are also being dispossessed from their lands by those with political power and money. Cambodia has approximately
10.7 million hectares of tropical forests of various types, which are fast falling victim to chainsaws and bulldozers. It has numerous streams, lakes, wetlands and rivers with a large variety of fishes and other aquatic lives. In Cambodia like in many other developing countries development is becoming increasingly synonymous with private investment. As in many countries in Asia, the dominant development model prioritises integration with regional and global markets, and rapid economic growth regardless of the ecological and social consequences.2 This case study focuses on the affected local communities in Ratanakiri Province where locals have not been consulted and have received little or no compensation for the loss of their land.3 Ratanakiri was selected as the study area as it falls under the category of most affected areas. The other most affected provinces are Kratie, Stung Treng, Kompong Speu, and Kompong Chamg. The north-eastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri are predominantly populated by indigenous people, and there are also 1 Priyanka Singh and Kaustuv K Bandyopadhyay, PRIA, India 2 World Rainforest Movement, http://www.wrm.org.uy/index.html 3 During the 1960s, especially in the north east of Cambodia, many highlanders were evicted from their traditional lands to make way for rubber plantations. The plantations, Prince Norodom Sihanouk's assimilation policies in the north east and the bombing by the US Air Force meant also that the north east was prime recruiting ground during the first years of the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
1 significant indigenous populations in Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces. The communities in these areas have come under pressure from land alienation through ‘land grabbing’, and illegal or coercive land sales. This dramatic land grabbing by national and international business corporations has triggered citizens’ movements demanding their rights. In most cases these movements have received support from institutionalised CSOs providing professional and legal expertise when required. Encroachment on agricultural and grazing land, and the resulting loss of livelihoods, is the most commonly-voiced concern by the communities.
The CSOs working in Ratanakiri and other provinces of Cambodia have increased their activities within communities, from awareness building to providing adequate legal help, as demanded by the villagers approaching them for guidance and support. Quite often the stories revealed that the NGOs provide evictees with emergency food and other relief that the government has declined to do.
Resistance at the Community Level/ Observations from the Field
The three case studies below are a reflection of the stories of resistance at the community level in Cambodia. These stories cannot be boxed into types instead through each story runs a thread of common themes, generating insight into how communities negotiate spaces. The community/ village population react in unique yet similar ways to land grab within their communities.
Mr. Swen Waio, Kung Batang Village, Lumpank District, Ratanakiri Province (a former police officer, now works on his agricultural land) The deforestation that started 2005 onwards gave rise to the confrontation between the villagers and the private company which took over the forests.. Our conversations revealed that he wanted to take legal recourse to help his community. He was selected through consensus by the village people as they regarded him as knowledgeable and someone they trusted. The respondent shared that the companies have tried to bribe him into submission but he has refused to give in. The problem arose as the people of Batang (Tampowan ethnic group) were pushed out of their land during the Pol Pot regime. A fact shared in the following pages. Now the community was trying to get back this land, which a neighbouring village was also laying claim to. In the interim period the land was sold to a company by the other village. They approached the district and provincial officials who deferred taking any action till the elections and post elections the Commune Council did not act upon it.4 The village leader was accepting bribes and working for the company ignoring the concerns of the community. The respondent shared that they received no cooperation from the Commune Council and sadly the Council elections became embroiled in partisan politics. The apathy shown by the Council5 was identified as one of the biggest challenges faced by the community. “Council 4 Cambodia’s decentralisation process commenced in 2001 with the enactment of laws on commune administration, management and elections. With the commune council elections in February 2002, Cambodia took a bold step towards deepening democracy; 1,621 councils were elected, resulting in 11,261 councilors taking office and assuming responsibilities for local governance and local development. Commune is defined as a legal entity, and a system of local governance. http://www.pactcambodia.org/Programs/Program_LAAR.html 5 Joakim Ojendal and Mona Lilja (ed) 2006, Beyond Democracy in Cambodia, pg 192. Historically, the communes have not delivered any public service. From the early twentieth century, they dealt mainly with policing and security issues, and after the Khmer Rouge regime the pre-occupation with security arrangements continued, along with population statistics, issuing of birth, death, marriage certificates, and the recruitment of local defence militia. But change has come about over time to improving relations between the population and authorities and making people participate in the development process.
It was shared that the change in agricultural techniques had led to a decrease in output. Similarly, the availability of meat for consumption has also been affected as rivers and forests are now under the control of companies. As a result the people have to go buy the same or look for more forested land as their access to rubber/ resin etc. has stopped. Land grabbing7 has led to a lack of access to forest products and animals etc. Villagers have migrated to other provinces in search of employment opportunities. The companies usually do not wish to employ the locals as they rely heavily on technology for their work or (in Batang they were not offered jobs) people are brought from outside to work on the land. There was widespread misuse of the judiciary, terming them and any form of protest illegal. As a member of the community Mr. Swen Waio stated that he was happy to work with NGOs as long as they did not create trouble in the village.
Travelling to some of the indigenous villages during the rains and meeting with community members gave us a first-hand experience of the conditions of the road, making travel in monsoons nothing short of a risky activity. Sakmotr Leu, Village, Seda Commune, Lumphat District in Ratanakiri Province was our destination, where we met with the deputy village head who was sitting outside his home with some other villagers. (They have been living on this land since Franco Colonial times). In Sakmotr Leu there were two ethnic groups Tampon and Lao (with 2-3 families.) The village has a primary school (1-5 Std) after which children go to the province to pursue higher education, this year only one girl had gone to study in the province and was staying in a hostel. The hospital is in the commune at a distance of three kilometres from this village, the village has a health volunteer provided by an NGO. There were hand pumps in the village, which had been provided by NGOs.
6 Personal interviews with Mr.Swen Waio 7 In Cambodia the most blatant case of land alienation today is taking place through land grabbing and illegal transactions. Instances have been recorded across provinces and Ratanakiri falls in one such worst affected province, with more than half of the country’s indigenous population.
3 When the first time the company tried to take over the land, the locals resisted and around hundred people came forward to stop the company. This included the women and youth of the village. The company sued the villagers (no individual in particular) as it was thought that this would act as a deterrent in the future. People from the village went and spoke with the company’s representatives asking them to stop; as a result the company stopped work for a while, but resumed operations later.
This took place in December 2011 and the locals were completely unaware of the land acquisition that was underway. Five people from the commune and the police met with the company officials and they presented them with an approval letter. The environmental Department of the province had identified the land without any consultation with the villages affected and the families whose land was being occupied.
As mentioned earlier, the companies had been wanting to take over the “sacred mountains” since 2002; this is significant as forests and burial grounds are considered to be an essential aspect of the indigenous culture and agricultural/livelihood systems in the region. The reduced land holding has led to a change in the agriculture patterns. In the past they grew rice, but now (since 2000) they have started growing cashew (this is being done just by observing neighbouring villagers, with no technical support.)
We met with a man a native of the village, who identified himself as an activist (working with an organisation on a three year long project, agriculture, and eco related.) The village comprises of 57 households. Since 2004 they have been adversely affected by land grabbing and instances of deforestation. In the past they had practiced shifting agriculture, but this was no longer in practice and the crops being produced currently were not good. The practice of monoculture agriculture at the cost of rice cultivation and slash and burn has led to the direct displacement of the communities from their land holdings, leaving the farmers impoverished.10 This village has been in direct conflict with timber companies since 2006. (The company is owned by influential people connected with government officials in Cambodia.) In 2004 the commune leader asked the villagers to “sell land” (a story repeated in different parts of the country) as it belonged to the country or they would anyway take it.11 This is 8 Armenian Marketing Association NGO 9 ADHOC - Cambodian Human Rights and Development 10 http://www.timberwatch.org/index.php?id=99 11 The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia, IPNN), NGO Forum on Cambodia, page-12, Feb 2010.
4 similar to the case documented of Busra commune where community members reported being forced to “sell” their land to the company (rubber plantation). They sold 50 hectares, but the timber company occupied 500 hectares. It was also shared that the company would not hire the villagers as they were not qualified enough for the jobs. In Kong Yu families received 400 USD for their land and unmarried men and women an additional 50 USD and this was accepted as a ‘gift’ given along with a trouser. The commune leader supported the community, but since he belonged to the opposition party he could not do much. The community was unhappy with the village leader, who was to prepare a five year plan for the village, but that has yet to happen. Indigenous people in this case and others report that they are frequently told by government officials that the land under dispute is State land (even their agricultural land), that they have no rights to it, and they have two options – settle now, or risk losing it in the future without any compensation, a claim documented by the Indigenous People NGO Network (IPNN). With regard to the involvement of NGOs in the village he felt it was a good thing as they provided legal aid to the villagers.