Twice a day, Sam Dy drives the rutted dirt road leading to his old house to check on his jackfruit trees. They’re nearly chest-height now, leaves glossy and dark. But the fruit is gone. Scavengers and thieves plucked some, while most rotted on the branch after he abandoned the land.
“We never got fruit from them,” he said. “They are bad already.”
Though they still stand, Mr. Dy no longer claims ownership of his house and field at Kbal Chhay, a patch of protected land around a series of shallow waterfalls that provide clean water to the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Some would say the 46-year-old never really owned his tin shack, with bouquets of fake white flowers stapled to either side of the weathered door. He bought the land from a dealer for $7,000, he said, but never received a title.
A few plots away, houses belonging to his neighbors are being systematically destroyed, with a few being felled every few weeks, said Chay Thou, 64, who lives up a nearby hill with her two sleek black dogs.
“The police and soldiers are coming to knock down the houses here,” Ms. Thou said. “They cut the front beams, they saw through the wood, and the whole roof falls.”
The two houses next to hers, along with dozens of others scattered over the hillside, have been reduced to wreckages of tin and shattered beams as the evictions slog on.
Like many land disputes in Cambodia, the trouble at Kbal Chhay started when talk of evictions grew louder, turning years of uncertain claims into pressing fears about the future.
The Preah Sihanouk provincial government, bursting with development plans, see the hundreds of families living in the area as a hindrance. The reservoir behind the waterfall is the sole source of clean water to hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists in Sihanoukville.
And with the public and investors weary of the environmental destruction that typically accompanies such development in Cambodia, the province was eager to highlight large swaths of protected areas behind resort-studded beaches in mock-ups of their future vision for the area, presented at a coastal conference last month.
But cleaning up past mistakes isn’t as simple as coloring in a green patch on a map.
While the residents of Kbal Chhay don’t have titles to the land they’re occupying, they still have a strong sense of being wronged. Mr. Dy said four have gone to prison for protesting the ongoing evictions.
Tired and poor, the rest have little time for the government’s development plans. They know as well as anyone Cambodia’s history of ancestral land being swindled, sold and seized. And though theirs is not such a story, as Ms. Thou’s and Mr. Dy’s plots were cut illegally from state forest, not inherited from family, they see their situation as little different from other land evictees they’ve heard about on the radio.
They spent their life savings and took out thousands of dollars in crippling loans for a dream of home ownership. State land or not, they paid for it. And when evictions begin, all land issues start to look the same—the poor lose out to the powerful.
Felling the Forests
There have been settlers around Kbal Chhay for many years, but most of the thousands who occupy the area now have moved in since 2012, says Bun Narith, a rights worker in the local Licadho office who has followed the changes there.
The area was put under the protection of the Forestry Administration in the early 2000s, when soldiers from a nearby base and students from Sihanoukville were invited to plant a stand of acacia trees next to the falls. In the years after the acacias were planted, a trickle of people started coming to cut them down and move in on the land, Mr. Narith said. Some were in the government. Some were wealthy tycoons. Some were poorer.
“A mix of people came. People from outside the area, authorities. It’s still a mix there. There are soldiers who have land there, there are oknhas, there are big people in the ministries,” he said. “The former provincial governor of Sihanoukville had a stadium there.”
In 2010, seeing that no one had stopped the first newcomers, people from “outside” came to fell the trees in earnest, Mr. Narith said. Opportunists from all over cleared plots of land and sold them to whoever came along, disappearing afterward with the money.
It’s hard to say who exactly these opportunists were—whether they were working with the wealthy and corrupt, as town gossip has it, or whether they were enterprising and poor, or perhaps soldiers from the nearby base. Mr. Narith believes it was probably a mix.
But it was from opportunists like these that Ms. Thou and Mr. Dy, and hundreds like them, bought their land. Manual laborers, mostly, in the lowest rungs of the town’s tourist economy, they were desperately hopeful for any release from relentless years of patchy work and rental houses that ate up too much of what little they made.
“We never knew the owners of the land,” said Ms. Thou, who bought her patch with her four children in 2013. “I heard from people that there was land being sold. There were people cutting trees here, and we bought it from them for $5,000. Later on, they ran off.”
Why would she buy land with no title? Ms. Thou said there were a lot of people living on it already. Moreover, there wasn’t much of a choice. “If you go anywhere else in this province, all the land is someone else’s already.”
It wasn’t only that. She has a vague memory that Prime Minister Hun Sen said the land grab was permitted. “Samdech had an announcement. He said that we could live here.”
But neither she nor a neighbor sitting with her knew when this announcement was made, or what it was specifically about.
Mr. Dy said he knew all along that his plot was protected state land. But, when pressed on why he spent thousands to settle there, he spread his hands and laughed.
“Well, there were other people here first. And state land? This means the land of all the people, no?”
Gesturing around him, he continued, “If there are no people, after all, how can there be a state? And if there’s no people’s land, well, how can there be state land?”
Thieves and Speculators
To some members of the provincial government, Mr. Dy and Ms. Thou are little better than speculators, the same as the opportunists who made money on the land in the first place. They rankle at their theatrics and claims of injustice.
Hai Bun Vannak, Preah Sihanouk’s deputy governor, said the people who lived at Kbal Chhay were just newcomers who bought the land to sell it on for a profit.
“They came and negotiated for it, person to person, even though we informed them that Kbal Chhay was a protected area,” he said. “They know that it is an area of land dispute, and state land under environmental protection.”
There was no difference between the initial opportunists and the people who bought from them, he said.
“Newcomers came there to buy it and make additional profits…. They bought it with risk.”
He would not comment on whether wealthy businessmen or members of the provincial governor also owned land there.
His is a view shared by many in Sihanoukville. Ok Saophon, a guesthouse worker in town, said that many of her friends had swarmed to the site.
“They worked with me some years ago—then they went and bought land there, 20 by 40 meters, for $500. Now it sells for $14,000, I hear,” she said.
“I don’t have any land, but I don’t like doing this. I think most people don’t actually want to go and live there. They want money.”
Ms. Saophon said she could predict exactly what residents would say. “‘The state is violating the people! We’ve been here decades already!’”
People were still buying and selling land at the site—perhaps with an eye to profit—as recently as a few months ago, including Ms. Thou’s neighbor. Declining to give his name, he said he bought the land, but was not living there yet. He didn’t have a specific move-in date in mind.
The Powerful Came First
To those with a more distant view of the situation, the question is less one of ownership than education: What are poor Cambodians taught about their land rights?
Discussing land issues during a recent interview, Environment Minister Say Sam Al said that neither the government nor human rights NGOs were providing clear information to the people about what it means to have land rights.
Some organizations gave the impression that people could just help themselves, he said.
“People are grabbing land now all over the country,” he said. “Cambodians need to understand what their obligations are, as well as what their rights are.”
“You should never lie to your kids,” Mr. Sam Al said metaphorically. “It becomes a stain on their brain.”
The government’s stunts with land disputes—publicly giving titles to the demonstrating poor, or rallying votes by taking back hundreds of hectares leased to corporate concessionaires—didn’t help the matter, he added.
Mr. Narith, the Licadho worker, said that the educational efforts of human rights NGOs were not the real problem. Like provincial human rights workers all over the country, he holds regular meetings with locals, including those of Kbal Chhay, to educate them on the law and human rights.
Despite accusations to the contrary, he said Licadho never told the inhabitants to grab land.
“We educate them: They can’t take the land of the state and make it theirs,” he said. “They have to join together to respect the forest.”
The issue, rather, was one of role models. Told to respect the law and protect the land, the people saw the opposite happening before their eyes, he said.
Powerful people—like the former provincial governor—had seized land first. If it was OK for him to do it, then why not them?
“They have lost their belief in the state,” he said of those buying up what was ostensibly protected land. “Most don’t think anything about taking state land.”
Such cynicism was almost impossible to repair, he added.
“There is information going around now that the state will give land to a private company, a Chinese company, when the people go.”
True or not, the rumor was often repeated around the area—by people in town, by women tending the bathrooms near the waterfall—as news spread that authorities were projecting tourist increases and signing agreements with Chinese hoteliers.
“They see that the people who follow the law don’t end up with anything,” Mr. Narith said. “So they do what they can do with what they have.”
Whose Land Is It?
Opportunists have followed opportunists, and perhaps more will follow.
On clear afternoons, in faded light that reflects off the ocean, men from the neighboring villages come to scavenge the remains of the Kbal Chhay land grab. When asked, they say that they are taking material for chicken coops. The wrecked houses are still scattered with the detritus of daily life: jars of prahok left in the sun, a lone woman’s shoe, a cheap television set still intact.
Mr. Dy is emphatic about his right to settle: No one stopped him from buying land or building on it, he declares, standing in front of his old house.
“Why was I allowed to build?” he asked. “Why didn’t they stop the people who cut the trees? Only the people who came and lived here, who built houses—they evicted them.”
He will keep checking on his jackfruit trees for as long as he can, he said. He has no interest in what the state will do with the land when it’s taken, as he’s been relocated to a tiny plot of land about 2 km away, along with scores of other Kbal Chhay evictees.
But he retains a deep and enduring question about what, in his poverty, his own country owes him.
“If this isn’t our land, then it means it’s another country’s land. Is it Vietnam’s land? Is it Thai’s land? Is it not Cambodia’s land?”