A simmering land dispute between a government-owned rubber plantation and local villagers in Kompong Thom province nearly turned deadly Saturday when six armed guards fired bullets over the heads of 160 villagers protesting what they allege are unfair land grabs, locals say.
One bullet was fired at a villager’s feet before the group dispersed, villagers said in an interview Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
A representative of the Tumring Rubber Plantation acknowledged that guards fired their guns in the air, but said it was only done to frighten away protesters who were about to set fire to a plantation bulldozer.
The shooting incident was apparently not reported to Kompong Thom provincial police, who said Tuesday that they did not know about it, according to Kim Ann, deputy police chief for Kompong Thom province.
After the shooting, police and commune leaders came to a compromise with the local people and the plantation guards, said Sok Sam, deputy director of administration at Chup Rubber Plantation.
The local people have since agreed to allow the bulldozer to clear the land, according to Sok Sam. Tumring, a 6,200-hectare plantation that opened Aug 29, 2001, is a subsidiary of the Kompong Cham-based Chup company.
But villagers from Ronteah village traveled to Phnom Penh on Tuesday to appeal for help in a situation they say has only worsened over the past year as the rubber plantation expands.
Their homes are located in Tumring commune, Sandan district.
Villagers said they filed complaints Monday with commune and provincial officials alleging that the company has failed to deliver on its promises of protection for the local population, many of whom barely survive on an income derived from tapping resin in the local forests.
A woman from Ronteah village who claimed her family has lived in the area for at least four generations said Tuesday that she lost her family’s 170 resin trees to the rubber company’s bulldozers. The company promised to pay 10,000 riel (about $2.56) per tree but has so far not handed over any money, she said.
For some, the situation is even worse, locals say. Residents in at least four villages near Ronteah have watched helplessly as rubber company bulldozers cleared small farm plots and crops of banana and jackfruit trees in its bid to extend the rubber plantation since coming to the area last August, the villagers charge.
Houses were the only thing left standing in those villages, the locals claim.
In nearby Tumring village, company guards beat up a group of villagers who were clearing a plot of land to prepare it for rice planting.
The guards slapped one of the villagers in the face and said the land was only for planting rubber trees, villagers said.
They also kicked a woman who was standing nearby with her bicycle, knocking her down, the villagers said. The guards then confiscated the villagers’ axes and other farming implements.
Sok Sam, of Chup Plantation, said the government-owned plantation has offered 3-hectare plots to the villagers—if they grow rubber on the land.
Fearing that the villagers may soon run out of food without an income from resin or self-sustaining crops, the World Food Program has been asked to go to the area to determine the people’s needs, say NGO officials, who are monitoring the situation.
The plantation has also drawn the attention of Global Witness, the government-appointed forest monitor.
The plantation sits at the junction of three logging concessions run by the logging companies GAT, Colexim and Mieng Ly Heang.
Global Witness country director Eva Galabru said illegal logging appears to be occurring near the borders and even in the rubber plantation, an apparent violation of the current moratorium on logging that was established Jan 1 by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“There is no supervision of the logging that is taking place in and around the rubber plantation area,” she said.