Samlot district, Battambang province – A jungle is being tamed, one burning hilltop at a time.
The unruly forests along Battambang’s border with Thailand are being leveled by the thrust of human will and toil.
Where just a few years ago there were thick bamboo groves and jungle-canopied hills, there is now rolling destruction, which from the ground appears to be of apocalyptic proportions.
Blurred by the smoky haze of burning forests on a sunny day, large swathes of Samlot district have become moonscapes of red, black and brown earth.
These tracts of scorched earth are the work of recently arrived farmers, clearing paths for peanuts and soybean cash crops.
Swinging a hoe into the ochre-colored earth of a scalped hillside in Tahsang commune, Soeung Roeun, 35, said she had just arrived from the nearby Tartork commune on the Thai border.
Soeung Roeun said she and more than a dozen other families left their old home after a neighbor was robbed and killed at home by bandits under the cover of darkness.
It was the second such killing in the past year, she said.
Standing in bare earth fields near her wooden shack where a gaggle of scruffy children were eating, Soeung Roeun said just a few months ago this land was covered in a thick scrub and tree forest. It was very cheap to buy at that time.
The land has become more expensive now that it is cleared $300 to $500 per hectare and readied to be planted with soybeans, which earn about $0.25 per kilogram at harvest time.
Plumes of smoke rose up from a smoldering hill behind her house, and as far as the eye could see, women and men just like Soeung Roeun were busy digging, chopping, burning and planting.
Neth Un, a member of the administrative staff for the district council, said that more than 15 families have relocated to the area because of the latest banditry near the Thai border in January, the third robbery killing since 2001.
But 15 families could only account for a fraction of the land being cleared. Other villagers offered proof that farmers are leaving the precarious existence of subsistence rice farming elsewhere in Cambodia for cash crop farming in Samlot’s fertile soil.
“Five years in a row floods destroyed all my rice,” said Kong Nhoeum, 51, at his farm in Prey Rom Chek village, Tahsang commune.
He left his native Pursat province for Samlot a year ago with no regrets nor a backward glance.
“Now in one year I can make a good living. I have two seasons for crops on these two hectares,” he said, as family members picked stones and clay lumps from baskets containing his peanuts.
A rice farmer for as long as he could remember, Kong Nhoeum speaks almost with contempt of slaving over paddy fields for one rice harvest a year that is, if he was lucky and the elements did not conspire against him.
Now he has cash crops: Peanuts mostly, but also chili, vegetables and eventually, fruit trees, which have only just been planted but should bear results in about five years.
“The people from Battambang come to buy my peanuts. More businessmen are coming and business is good,” he said, quickly calculating that he could earn $500 from his farm each year.
Though his land fronting the district’s dirt road is only about 20 meters in width, Kong Nhoeum said that in length, it once stretched as far back as one cared to clear the jungle.
Since an increasing number of farmers have moved in and staked claims to land, a natural boundary has been struck at a small stream about 50 meters behind his house.
“When I came it was all forest. I was afraid to walk around there,” Kong Nhoeum said, nodding to now naked earth fields at the back of his house. “There were many trees and animals,” he said.
“Now there is just a little wildlife. Before, when the forest was here, there was a lot,” he said. But peanuts won’t grow in shade, so all the trees had to go.
He noted how remarkable it is that the forest is gone and that there is almost a village-sized settlement of houses beyond the hills behind his house.
The land rush in Tahsang only started a year ago, he said, describing how people from Battambang, Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and even Kampot province came to visit after fighting stopped in this former Khmer Rouge-held area in 1998. Samlot’s fertile hillside soil encouraged visitors to stay, he added.
Kong Nhoeum said he wasn’t yet worried that increased competition among the new farmers would lower the price of their crops, but that might change.
“In the past year there was no problem about competition, but I don’t know about his year,” he said. Though there is a risk this fledgling commodities market might become flooded, Kong Nhoeum said the prospects for his peanut crop were still better than his rice fields in Pursat.
His children would be leaving Pursat soon to join him in Samlot, he added.
On uprooting from his province of birth and now buying rice instead of growing it, he said, “I miss my village but it can’t provide for my future.” “Rice. When there is drought or flood, it is all finished.”