Fearing their plowed fields have been stolen from them, at least 90 families in Battambang province have staked out tents in their rice fields, human rights workers said last week.
The farmers erected tents about a month ago in the 150 hectares of rice paddies in Kors Kralor district because they are afraid their fields will be seized, said Chan Soveth, an investigator for Adhoc.
The land is part of a 450-hectare plot sold by a military commander to a businessman several years ago, Chan Soveth said. The farmers have been cultivating the land for several years and now are afraid the unidentified businessman will take the area, Chan Soveth said.
Provincial officials will meet with the farmers and local authorities to sort out the land dispute soon, Battambang Second Deputy Governor Pa Socheatevong said.
The families are acting out of desperation; they don’t believe commune authorities are acting in their interests or will be able to help them find new land, Chan Soveth said. But new land would be worthless to the families, since they have already planted their rainy season crop.
“If their rice fields are grabbed, how will they even live or farm?” Chan Soveth asked.
Bun Seng, commander of Military Region 5, said his subordinates have not tried to take the land and sell it to the businessman. He said the land was occupied by the military until 1998, but was handed over to the district government when peace with the Khmer Rouge was established.
Around 200,000 poor Cambodians are involved in land disputes with powerful people, according to some estimates. Few have titles to the properties they live on or farm, and powerful interests often lay claim—legally and illegally—to vast swaths of land.
The number of landless Cambodians is rapidly increasing—an estimated 12 to 20 percent of the population is considered landless—and these figures could become worse as the population continues to grow.