banlung, Ratanakkiri – Endless hectares of sterile, yet oddly beautiful state-owned rubber plantations have already displaced much of the once wild expanses of forest here in Ratanakkiri.
But despite the apparent serenity, a battle for control has been raging between the private company contracted by the government to run some 1,000 hectares of its Ratanakkiri plantations and the “solidarity groups” who control the rest.
Though the government has come down firmly on the private firm’s side, operators of the solidarity groups—remnants of workers’ collectives set up in the 1980s to restore production after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge—said last week they are not going anywhere.
“We have been looking after the plantations for over 20 years and now they want to smash our rice-pot on the ground,” said Chhe Chan, representative for the province’s 34 solidarity groups and co-operator of Group 14. “We cannot accept this.”
As far as the government is concerned, however, they will have to.
Solidarity group operators have long been accused of running their plantations like private fiefdoms, and there is ample evidence of widespread selling of management positions, exploitation of the estimated 900 people who work under them and tax evasion, according to government and provincial officials.
Last year the Agriculture Ministry took action.
An October order signed by Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun said that the 34 solidarity groups, which operate 1,300 hectares of rubber plantations, were to be dissolved and their plantations taken over by the Tai Seng Rubber Co.
Tai Seng received a concession from the government about eight years ago to run the 1,000 hectares of state-owned plantations in Ratanakkiri not under solidarity group control. The government also mandates that the solidarity groups sell their rubber resin exclusively to Tai Seng.
Tai Seng Rubber Plantation Director-General Ly Hong Sin said Monday that the Ministry of Land Management had recently mapped out all the plantations in Ratanakkiri and would hand the land titles to the Ministry of Agriculture this week.
“When the Ministry [of Agriculture] receive the titles, we will assume control of all of the state-owned rubber plantations,” he said.
Complaints by the solidarity group bosses would prove fruitless, Ly Hong Sin said.
“This is not [the solidarity groups’] land,” he said. “It is owned by the government, and they can do as they wish with it.”
But Chhe Chan, interviewed recently in his home near Banlung town, claimed that the government’s decision showed a lack of understanding of realities on the ground.
This was a war between Tai Seng and the solidarity group plantation workers, and they would not give up easily, he said.
“There will be violence if the government tries to confiscate the rubber plantations,” he warned. “Any government official coming up here to do that will never return from Ratanakkiri.”
However, the workers whose interests Chhe Chan claimed to be protecting appeared to see it differently.
“The solidarity group pressures me so much,” said worker Chhum Sokha, 48. “I make very little money, and most of what we do make is spent on equipment.”
He estimated when his own costs were taken out, he only received about 20 percent of what the rubber resin he harvested was worth.
“I want to leave, but there are no vacancies at the moment with Tai Seng,” said Chhum Sokha. “If the government stopped the solidarity groups I would be happy.”
Touch Ly, a plantation worker who made the move to Tai Seng just a few weeks ago, said he had heard the solidarity groups had been dissolved but saw no change in his working conditions at Group 12.
“My boss was still my boss,” he said.
Touch Ly claimed the operators of Solidarity Group 12 took at least 50 percent of his earnings, leaving him with less than $150 a month.
“The solidarity group bosses do nothing but collect the money,” he said.
With Tai Seng he is receiving 70 to 80 percent of the market value of the resin, giving him around $400 per month for the same harvest.
Chhe Chan argued the government had backed the solidarity groups into a financial corner by forcing them to sell their resin to Tai Seng.
“We must sell to them so they set a price which makes it impossible for us to pay our workers properly,” he said. “If we could sell to the free market we could make a lot more money and pay our workers better.”
Chhech Buntha, who described himself as a shareholder in Solidarity Group 14, claimed Tai Seng had tricked workers into complaining to discredit the solidarity groups.
“The issue is not between the solidarity groups and the workers, who signed contracts agreeing to these terms,” he said. “The real issue is incitement by the company.”
He added that the government should not come in and dissolve the solidarity groups without offering compensation.
Chhe Chan puts it in blunter terms. “We don’t need the workers to support us,” he said. “The solidarity chiefs own the groups.”
But whether they have the support of the workers or not is irrelevant, according to Ly Phalla, director-general of the Agriculture Ministry’s Directorate of Rubber Plantations.
Ly Phalla confirmed that the ministry’s order would be put into effect within days and that he would be traveling to Ratanakkiri to make sure of it.
According to him, the ethos of the original solidarity groups had long vanished, and managers had illegally sold the plantations to other parties, many of whom had sold them on again. Chhe Chan admitted he had bought Solidarity Group 14 from a previous owner, whom he did not name, several years ago.
“There will be no compensation for [solidarity group bosses] because they have enjoyed benefits without paying taxes for a long time,” Ly Phalla said, calling on the solidarity group managers to surrender their plantations peacefully.
“They have taken state property and now they want to kill [officials],” he said. “But there is nothing they can say that will change the Agriculture Ministry order.”