A half-dozen villagers from Oddar Meanchey province traveled to Phnom Penh on Wednesday to ask the highest levels of government to return the farmland that thousands of families say they had stolen from them by a trio of Thai-owned sugarcane plantations.
In March, the Agriculture Ministry took back ownership of the combined 20,000 hectares it leased in 2008 to Mitr Phol—one of drinks giant Coca-Cola’s main global sugar suppliers. But the sight of military families moving onto the land since then has the roughly 2,000 families who lost their homes and farms worried they won’t get them back.
Six representatives of the families traveled to Phnom Penh to deliver petitions to the Agriculture Ministry and Council of Ministers, claiming 5,003 hectares for 2,466 families, some of whom have received new plots of land in compensation but say the soil is no good for farming.
“I hope that we get the land back because the government has canceled the [plantations],” said Sman Te, one of the villagers.
Mr. Te said five military families moved into Mitr Phol’s abandoned offices in April, sparking fears that the government would give the land to the military. Rumors that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) has lodged a formal request for the land with the Agriculture Ministry have not helped.
Eang Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia, a land rights NGO, said some evictees had been told that the land might even end up back in corporate hands.
“The community was told by the local authorities that the land might be returned to another company; that’s why they’re very worried,” he said. But officially, he added, “we have not heard anything.”
Last month, Eang Sophalleth, an undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry, said Mitr Phol had made the decision to abandon the plantations because of the controversy surrounding the evictions and that the families might get back their lost land.
On Wednesday, another undersecretary of state at the ministry, Chan Savuth, said the fate of the 20,000 hectares had been placed in the hands of the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution and he did not know if it had made a decision.
The head of the authority, Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, declined to comment. The commander of the province’s RCAF forces, Brigadier General Mok Sovan, could not be reached.
Rights groups that have studied the land dispute say more than 3,000 hectares of forest were cleared while Mitr Phol was around, and evictees say the military families that have moved in since have been logging what was left.
Teang Davuth, who heads the Forestry Administration’s Samraong division in Oddar Meanchey, dismissed the reports of ongoing logging by military families.
He said that provincial governor Sar Thavy had sent him to the area to investigate the reports a few days ago, “but I did not find them occupying the land.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)