Villagers representing more than 1,000 families that accuse sugarcane plantations around the country of stealing their land gathered in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to once again call on the government to help.
The families, spread across four provinces, have been pleading with government bodies for years to help them get their land back or secure the compensation they say they deserve. The 36 representatives who came to Phnom Penh on Tuesday handed in a joint petition—a first for the communities—to the National Assembly’s human rights commission and the ministries of agriculture and environment.
The petition challenges Environment Minister Say Sam Al’s claim earlier this month that nearly all land disputes involving sugarcane plantations had been settled.
Huoy Mai, from Oddar Meanchey province, said hundreds of families were still waiting for the government to give them their land back after Thai sugar company Mitr Phol agreed to give up its two plantations there in 2014.
“We came to Phnom Penh to ask the government to help us because there is no solution from provincial authorities,” she said at a press conference organized by Equitable Cambodia, an NGO assisting the communities.
“The company has already withdrawn, but the authorities are ignoring the villagers,” she said. “If they don’t solve it, we will go back to live on the land because the land was ours.”
Last month, about 200 families evicted to make way for a pair of sugarcane plantations owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat in Kompong Speu province struck a deal for $500 in compensation each. However, Soeng Sokhom said on Tuesday that those families took the money because they were told they would get nothing if they refused, and they were now demanding more.
“We think the compensation is unreasonable because we want our land back because farmers need land,” he said. “If we look [at] market prices, the $500 they gave each family is not enough to buy more land.”
In Koh Kong province, about 200 families have been fighting over land with another two plantations also tied to Mr. Yong Phat—who has since sold out—and are suing Tate & Lyle in London for having bought some of their sugar. Teng Kao, a party to the suit, said the case has not gone to court since it was filed in 2013.
Some of the representatives also came from Preah Vihear province, where a few hundred families accuse a pair of Chinese-owned sugarcane plantations of grabbing their land.
Since early 2014, the E.U. has been in talks with a special government committee to come with a system to fairly compensate all families done wrong by sugarcane plantations in the country. But there has been no sign of progress since the E.U. said they agreed on way to identify eligible families a year ago.
“Although the inter-ministerial committee has had the draft for the process of the E.U. audit in hand for almost 10 months, and there are some reports that there has been some discussion on it, there is still no clear response about whether or not the government will let the audit process go forward,” Leng Sarorn, a program manager for Equitable Cambodia, said by email.
The E.U. delegation’s office in Phnom Penh did not reply to a request for comment.
As for the villagers’ petition, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said officials would look into what compensation the plantations have provided to the families so far.
“We need time to review the petition and verify what the authorities and companies have done to find a solution,” he said.
Spokesmen for the Agriculture Ministry could not be reached for comment. Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, who chairs the National Assembly’s human rights commission, could not be reached, either.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)