Apprehension Amid Tri-Border Development Talks

banlung city, Ratanakkiri province – Ma Bunkhon, an ethnic Kachok villager from Andong Meas district, only heard of the “triangle development area” a few days ago. But as a beleaguered cashew farmer trying to eke out a modest living in the province’s northern highlands, he’s been dealing with it for years.

Initiated by Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in 2004, the “triangle” plan calls on the neighbors to boost economic activity in 10 largely undeveloped provinces—including Ratan­ak­kiri—along their shared border. In Banlung city yesterday, senior commerce and planning officials from the three countries wrapped up five days of meetings on how to move the plan forward.

Six years on, however, community-level officials, NGO workers and indigenous minority villagers like Mr Bunkhon all say they know virtually nothing about the future plans for their areas. And they worry that the heralded “development” is coming too fast and at their expense.

“Our community doesn’t know the plan,” Mr Bunkhon said. “We only know the effects.”

According to Mr Bunkhon, a Vietnamese company moved into his area some years ago and took over 8,000 hectares of land that the Kachok had considered theirs.

“The land used to be cashew land and rotational farmland; now we want to expand but the company doesn’t let us,” he said. “The company came without pointing out what is their land and what is our land. It seems like it is all their land.”

So he and half-a-dozen of his fellow villagers made the 67 km trip into Banlung this week in hopes of taking their complaint straight to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The premier was here yesterday to inaugurate the paving and reconstruction of National Road 78, which links the provincial capital to the Vietnamese border. The $25.6 million road project funded by Vietnam is the latest showpiece of the development area.

In their petition, the villagers ask Mr Hun Sen to speed up the land titling of indigenous communities and ensure that social and environmental impact studies precede the granting of any more land concessions.

“Our indigenous group, if we don’t have land we cannot survive because we cannot do business like others,” Mr Bunkhon said. “If we have no land title the community cannot protect the land and use the forest resources…. When we have land title, the community can protect the resources.”

But when they tried handing the petition to the premier through the provincial governor’s office, the villagers said, an administrator at the office said their complaint would only be handled at the provincial level.

Mr Bunkhon said he was also barred from attending yesterday morning’s road inauguration because he had no pass. A security guard at the event also took a copy of their petition away from a reporter without explanation as she entered the event.

At the province’s Culture and Fine Arts Office yesterday afternoon, organizers of the event also told reporters to leave a meeting of the tri-nation development area’s joint coordinating committee, presided over by Cambodian Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh.

Mr Prasidh could not be reached yesterday for comment and Sok Sopheak, director general of the ministry’s International Trade Department, said he was too busy to speak when contacted by phone.

Even at the provincial level, details of the “development” area were not forthcoming.

Ratanakkiri provincial governor Pao Ham Phan said he was too busy to speak about the development area before the joint coordinating committee convened yesterday, and he did not answer his phone after the meeting.

Deputy provincial governor Chey Sayoeun, however, said Cambodia would publicize the results of the meeting after first reporting to Laos and Vietnam.

“The meeting is being held group by group in different places in Ratanakkiri. We have the plan group, the technical group, and the financial group,” he said.

“After this [Thursday] afternoon’s meeting the report of the discussion will be sent to the three governments…. Now we are gathering to discuss and exchange ideas about the results of the previous days’ meetings,” he said.

Outside Banlung city, villagers living along the banks of the Sesan and Srepok rivers also worry about the economic boom that boosters of the development area promise.

They say upriver dams in Vietnam have already increased the number and force of flooding along the rivers’ Cambodian reaches and fear more dams being planned by Cambodia itself-which get a brief mention in the development area’s master plan-will only make the problem worse.

“The dams have caused a lot of problems. Today the water is knee level and tomorrow it’s neck level,” said Phuon Nouphit, 53, who lives on the banks of the Sesan river in Veun Sai district and who blames the varying water levels for the loss of his most prized cow.

“One dam causes such a problem. How about two?” he asked.

Klot Sen, a farmer from Lumphat district, blames the upriver dams for silting up her stretch of the Srepok and reducing the area’s fish haul.

“The fish run away so we face a fish shortage right now,” she said. “I am afraid that if more dams take place they will affect people more.”

“It is true that we cannot avoid the constructing, but the government should reduce [the impact],” she said. “Don’t cause any effect and handle peoples’ concern; pay fair compensation to the people who get affected,” she added.

Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3 S Rivers Protection Network, said villagers submitted a petition to the provincial governor’s office asking the Prime Minister to reevaluate the potential impact of the proposed dams.

“We don’t object to the plan, but we propose to the government please avoid any impact,” said Som Vanna, chief of Cha Ung commune in O’Chum district.

As for the rebirth of National Road 78, which runs 70 km east from Banlung to the Vietnamese border, some locals warily welcome the project.

“The building of the road is good,” said Mr Bunkhon, the Kachok cashew farmer.

“But later on we will lose our land.”

 

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