Ratanakkiri-based representatives for rights group Adhoc said yesterday they are investigating claims that a district governor attempted to intimidate Jarai minority villagers into giving up their land to a mining company and warned that if rampant land-grabbing in the province does not stop soon, future generations of indigenous communities will be left with nothing.
About 70 percent of the farmland local minorities use for rotational crop planting has been sold off or illegally encroached upon in the past five years, said provincial Adhoc investigator Chhay Thy.
The organization is also looking into complaints, filed by Jarai villagers last week accusing Andong Meas district governor Nong Darith and local officials of trying to coerce residents into giving up their land, said Adhoc’s provincial coordinator, Pen Bonnar.
Residents from Kachot village in the district’s Nhang commune claim the governor told villagers at a community meeting on Dec 22 that their land belongs to the Hor Anh mining company, Mr Bonnar said.
The villagers’ problems stem not from the granting of concessions, Mr Bonnar claimed, but from the interference of local authorities. He blamed commune and district officials of trying to line their own pockets at residents’ expense, then falsify reports to national leaders.
“These authorities at this level frequently think of their personal interest and never support affected villagers,” Mr Bonnar said.
Contacted by phone yesterday, Mr Darith denied the villagers’ accusation. He claimed he met with villagers to discuss how much of their land would be affected by a land concession granted to the company for exploration.
Mr Darith said six companies have been granted economic land concessions in the district, though he said he could not remember how much land had been allocated to any of them.
In the province’s Bakeo district, where the rich red soil is perfect for growing rubber trees, Adhoc estimates that 70 percent of farmland has been sold to Cambodians from other provinces, Mr Thy said.
A similar situation exists in neighboring O’yadaw district, Mr Thy said. Adhoc has observed at least seven land disputes there in recent years, covering about 3,000 hectares of land, or about 40 percent of the district’s total area, he said.
O’yadaw residents are facing high-profile opponents in their land disputes, Mr Thy said, including ongoing cases involving wealthy businessman Ta Vei, adviser to the prime minister Kao Try, and Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
“All these high-profile land disputes have not yet been resolved,” he said.
Bakeo district governor Heng Bunthan said some local villagers had sold their land without informing the authorities.
“But the alleged land sales do not cover 70 percent of the district, because only a small amount of farmland has been sold,” he said.
O’yadaw district governor Dak Sar said there were only three land disputes in his district.
“In some cases, local people made land deals with the buyers directly. In the dispute involving Ms Kolney, she legally purchased the land,” he said.