Farmers in Oddar Meanchey province who were kicked off their land by three now-canceled sugarcane plantations say soldiers have started to move onto their old farms and urged the government Monday to return the land to the people who lost it.
Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, which supplies Coca-Cola, was granted the concessions covering a combined 20,000 hectares inside Samraong City in 2008 and pulled out late last year without having harvested—let alone exported—any sugar.
What they have done, rights groups say, is steal land from some 2,000 families, burned down the homes of about 200 of them with the help of local security forces and driven farmers who had been able to support themselves into poverty and debt.
Now that the plantations have been returned to the state, the families say the government has no more excuses not to return it to them.
“After the government took it back, we have seen the armed forces clearing the land. Please, give it back to the community,” Suon Sorn, who lost his farm to the plantations, said Monday at the launch of a new NGO report on the dispute in Phnom Penh.
“Make it a social land concession for people who do not have land,” he said.
The government has explained the need for economic land concessions (ELCs), like the ones it gave Mitr Phol, by touting the boost they give the economy and the jobs they give locals. But across the country, communities that have seen ELCs move in say they have done them no good, and the government has failed to offer evidence to prove otherwise.
“We have lost our forest, we have lost our farmland, and the people who used to collect non-timber products have lost a source of income,” Mr. Sorn said. “We do not see any benefits, only trouble.”
Some of the families have been offered new land to replace what they lost, but they say the soil there is infertile. Without their old farms, and few other options to make money, many have left to find jobs in Thailand.
Huoy Mai, who also lost land to the plantations, said her children were among the many Cambodians who were briefly rounded up by Thai authorities last year during a crackdown on illegal migrant workers that drove more than 200,000 of them back to Cambodia.
“If we have land, of course we will come back; nobody wants to stay in Thailand,” she said.
But the sight of soldiers moving in on their old farms has the families worried that they will lose out yet again, even with Mitr Phol out of the way.
“We have seen soldiers coming and requesting the land for their families,” said Chea Chuong, who lost five hectares to the plantations. “The land should be given back to the community, but I’m afraid the land will be given to other parties.”
Word of Mitr Phol’s decision to pull out of Oddar Meanchey, and the government’s decision to cancel its concessions, is not new.
In February, the NGO Equitable Cambodia said it had heard the news from officials, and provincial agriculture department chief Yoeun Buntha confirmed at the time that the plantations had agreed to give their land back to the government.
Mitr Phol has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
On Friday, the Agriculture Ministry posted a list of recently canceled ELCs to its Facebook page, noting that Mitr Phol’s concessions were officially returned to the state in March.
Eang Sophalleth, an undersecretary of state at the ministry, said Mitr Phol pulled out “because of the controversy regarding the ‘blood sugar’”—the term that evictees have used for the sugar being grown on their old farms.
Mr. Sophalleth said he did not know why the Thai company never harvested any sugarcane on the land, as per its contract. He also said he was unaware of reports from Oxfam and ActionAid, which put out Monday’s report, that the owners had struck a deal with another firm letting it log their concessions and set up a timber processing plant.
Mr. Sophalleth said the government was still deciding what to do with the land, and that it could go back to the evictees.
“The government policy is: If the land belongs to the people, we give it back to them,” he said, adding that he was skeptical of claims that soldiers had already started moving in.
“Sometimes [there are] rumors here and rumors there,” he said. “We work on evidence.”
Samraong City governor Oum Sopheak said he did not know what would happen to the land, either, but denied that soldiers were taking over.
“We just got a letter from the [provincial] governor telling the city authorities to look after the land and not allow anyone to farm,” he said. “Now we are waiting for the next step from the top leaders.”
Provincial governor Sar Thavy could not be reached. His deputy, Vat Paranin, declined to comment.
Monday’s report from Oxfam and ActionAid mainly corroborated the findings of past investigations by Oxfam and other NGOs.
Last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, which has done its own research and field visits in Oddar Meanchey, said it agreed that the evictees had legitimate claims to the land and that the plantations had broken local laws.
Coca-Cola, which counts Mitr Phol among its top three global sugar suppliers, also visited the area last year but has refused to share its findings. It has pledged to clean up its sugar suppliers over the next few years, but has yet to do anything to help the evictees in Cambodia.