dak dam commune, Mondolkiri province – Only a skeletal crew of laborers inhabits the shanties dotting Mondolkiri’s expansive grasslands and forested, rolling hills, but while the dry season slows work on the Wuzhishan LS Group plantation, hilltribes continue to push for the land they claim as their own.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An, who visited this month as head of an interministerial committee charged with resolving the dispute over the massive concession, claimed that Phnong ethnic minority villagers had previously negotiated for a fair settlement to the dispute before NGOs incited them.
“Before the ethnic minorities spoke the truth, but now they say this today, and tomorrow they will say something different,” Nuth Sa An said by telephone recently.
“They don’t understand. They just hear [from NGOs] that it is ancestral land,” he said.
The Phnong traditionally practice shifting agriculture—leaving plots fallow to regenerate for years at a time—and they raise livestock on open land and collect forest products.
Duol Nhek, 40, a community representative in Dak Dam commune, claimed in an interview earlier this month that Nuth Sa An had threatened to deploy police to protect the Wuzhishan plantation and to stop NGO workers from entering Phnong villages.
“Nuth Sa An told me to explain to villagers not to complain anymore [about the plantation],” Duol Nhek said. “He told me to instruct villagers not to hold any more demonstrations.”
Newly appointed provincial Governor Lay Sokha said on April 3—his first morning in the position—that Nuth Sa An had assured him that the problems between ethnic minority villagers and Wuzhishan had already been solved.
He also added that he would make dealing with land disputes and forest crimes priorities during his mandate.
Theoretically, Phnong communal rights to ancestral lands are protected under the Land Law, but registration has proved difficult.
Phnong villagers claim that land the government has designated as unused and given to Wuzhishan was actually fallow farmland, grazing fields, spirit forests and even burial grounds.
Duol Nhek said villagers refused Nuth Sa An’s offer of five hectares of land outside the concession to each family in return for the land being given to Wuzhishan.
Nuth Sa An said he would be willing to raise the offer to five hectares per person.
The acting director of Wuzhishan in Mondolkiri, Li Heu Ping, claimed last year that the government had granted his company and land giant Pheapimex Co a 200,000-hectare joint concession, a statement that Nuth Sa An denies.
The government granted Wuzhishan 199,999 hectares only in principle in 2004, offering the legal limit of 10,000 hectares as a starting point.
But even government officials acknowledge that the plantation is now larger than 10,000 hectares.
O’Reang district Governor Sao Sarim, who estimated that the plantation covers more than 30,000 hectares, said Nuth Sa An should bear responsibility for the breakdown in negotiations rather than blaming NGOs for causing the problem in the first place.
“He could not solve the problem,” Sao Sarim said. “He does not accept blame. He blames it on local authorities.”
Sao Sarim added that the Wuzhishan plantation has operated illegally with the support of the government since the beginning, and he feels powerless to help his constituents because the powerful Chinese company is dealing directly with the top levels of government.
“Nobody would allow a company to come and do something that violates their own villagers,” he added.
But Chan Yoeun, one of two ethnic Phnong provincial deputy governors, said villagers would eventually embrace the plantation once they are working as laborers on it.
“They will be happy and they will have no problem when they become workers and the government provides electricity and roads to their villages,” Chan Yoeun said. “They don’t understand because they don’t benefit from it yet.”
But the villagers remain divided on whether modern infrastructure is a necessary adaptation, a harbinger of cultural destruction or both.
Duol Nhek said he would welcome electricity because he hopes this would enable younger people to have a better standard of living and learn to use computers.
But villager Nhan Bora, 43, said that if the next generation learns from computers, they might not learn from the forest, and traditions could be lost.
“We rely on the natural fruits. When there are cars and motorbikes, who will we rely on?” she asked.
“We don’t want it. When there is enough electricity, there will be no more Phnong culture.”