About 50 ethnic Jarai families in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district have sold their farmland and part of the forests their culture depends on to the sister of former Finance Minister Keat Chhon, rights group Adhoc said Monday.
Last year, the ethnic minority Jarai in the district were pushed to accept private land titles rather than obtain a community land title—which would have protected their spirit forests and prevented the land from being sold —because authorities told them that acquiring a communal title would take too long.
Sal Chaing, a 25-year-old resident of Paknhai commune, said that he sold his 4.5 hectares of farmland to a middleman called Khin Sophal for $5,850 last week.
“I have sold my land for $1,300 per hectare, but so far I only received $3,500,” Mr. Chaing said, adding that the deal was signed by two witnesses: Dork Sar, O’Yadaw district governor, and commune chief Rochom Lich.
Mr. Chaing said that with the money, he will build a wooden house on the 1 hectare of farmland he still owns.
Although Mr. Sar, the district governor, denied that he signed any documents, he said Monday that since early September, dozens of Jarai families in Lom village have been selling their farmland, as they were in need of the money.
“We are not able to stop villagers from selling their farmland because they have the right to do so as they have legal land titles,” Mr. Sar said, adding that a businesswoman from Phnom Penh was buying the land, but that he did not know her name.
Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that Keat Kolney, a sister of former Finance Minister Mr. Chhon and wife of Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, had bought the Jarai villagers’ land through an intermediary.
“Keat Kolney bought the 150 hectares” of Jarai land, Mr. Thy said, alleging that authorities had colluded with Ms. Kolney when they pushed the families to opt for private titles last year.
Ethnic Jarai in nearby Kong Yu and Kong Thom villages have been locked in a land dispute for several years with Ms. Kolney, who they accuse of fooling them out of several hundred hectares of forest and farmland on the pretext the land was to be used by the government. Though the villagers have spent years pursuing their complaints against Ms. Kolney through the court, the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court has consistently failed to expedite their case.
“I understand that local authorities forced the villagers to register their private land titles because it is easy for [authorities] to buy the land from villagers,” Mr. Thy said.
The forest, on which the Jarai’s traditions and livelihoods are based, was already being cleared, Mr. Thy said.
“We are worried because [Ms. Kolney] is using 20 workers to cut the trees in the communal forest with chain saws, right next to the farmland that the villagers sold, and next they will use bulldozers to clear the land,” he said.
Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said that he feared that the Jarai culture would be lost completely in O’Yadaw district.
“If they had a community land title, they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Now the land on which the Jarai base their culture will be lost,” Mr. Sam Ath said.
Ratanakkiri governor Pao Ham Phan said that he did not know if Ms. Kolney was buying up ethnic minority land in the province.
“I don’t know if Keat Kolney is the buyer, but there is nothing wrong if she bought the land for an appropriate price.”
“That they are selling their farmland means they are killing themselves, but I don’t know what to do for them because they need money,” Mr. Ham Phan said.
(Additional reporting by Denise Hruby)
© 2013, All rights reserved.