The $2.50 a day some locals are now paid at CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Koh Kong Sugar Industry Company, to clear the very land they used to farm, is not Miev Nam’s idea of progress.
In granting such economic land concessions, the government sells locals with the promise of new and varied jobs on agricultural plantations. But since it granted Mr Yong Phat nearly 10,000 hectares in the province’s Sre Ambel district for a sugarcane farming, residents say their lot has only worsened.
“The economic land concession has meant nothing for the poor. It just helps the rich to become richer while the poor lose all their property,” said Ms Nam, who said she was forced into selling most of her four hectares for a pittance when Mr Yong Phat moved in.
“The rich do not suffer. Only the poor like us are the victims, because the economic land concessions have made my family poor,” she said.
Ms Nam was among about a dozen villagers who gathered in Phnom Penh Wednesday to represent thousands of families in Koh Kong and Kompong Speu provinces who say they have been dispossessed by government-awarded land concessions. At an event organized by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, NGO Forum and the Housing Rights Task Force, the villagers called on the government to stop granting concessions and to review the legality of those it has granted already.
Villagers and NGOs alike consistently accuse concessionaires of sidestepping key provisions in Cambodia’s Land Law and sub-decree on land concessions, from failing to complete environmental impact assessments to not consulting with the communities they have moved into.
“If these…points are followed then there will be no problems,” said NGO Forum Executive Director Chhit Sam Ath. “But we still observe that enforcement is not in accordance with the law.”
He urged the government to publish information on all its concessions and claimed that the 78 such deals that have been disclosed by the government are far fewer than the 208 concessions that NGOs say have actually been granted.
By setting up different companies, they say, the well-connected can also get around the legal limit of 10,000 hectares of concession land per person. Mr Yong Phat, they noted, owns at least three concessions that add up to nearly 28,000 hectares.
Mr Yong Phat could not be reached for comment yesterday. A spokesperson for his Phnom Penh Sugar Company in Kompong Speu said the firm has made a point of hiring more than 200 locals.
“We give priority to local people to work on our plantation,” said Chheang Kim Sun.
“When the villagers calm down and stop being agitated by inciters, the villagers will understand that the government and our company are helping them improve their lives because we will develop better infrastructure and education for them,” she said.
The villagers at yesterday’s meeting insisted that the plantations hire most of their laborers—even at the low wages they offer—from neighboring provinces to the detriment of locals living in the concession area. They accused security guards of enforcing ambiguous boundaries and demanding bribes for the return of stray cattle, which has forced their children to forgo school in order to watch over their livestock.
They also blamed plantations for fouling the land.
“The natural resources have been seriously destroyed,” said An Haya, who represented some 400 families displaced by Koh Kong Sugar. “Fish have died because of the mass use of pesticides by the sugarcane company that flows into the stream and canals.”
“We would not protest if the concession really benefits the local villagers,” said Khun Chuch, whose fellow villagers have been locked in an ongoing land dispute with the Phnom Penh Sugar Company in Kompong Speu.
“But we suffer again and again because we have never been offered a fair solution for the loss of resources we need to support our families.”
At the Council of Ministers, which must weigh in on all concession proposals, spokesman Phay Siphan said he knew too little about the issue to comment and referred questions to the Agriculture Ministry, where Minister Chan Sarun was unavailable.