Trapaing Chor Commune, Kompong Speu province – Representatives of more than 350 indigenous Suoy families living in the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary came to a resolution with the government yesterday over an agribusiness concession awarded to a Singaporean firm, which plans to grow corn on parts of the Suoy’s land for sale to both domestic and foreign markets.
Speaking at a public consultation at Wat Keo Dountey in Kompong Speu province’s Trapaing Chor commune, Suoy villagers said the land concession, which was allocated in a sub-decree signed by Mr Hun Sen in March, overlapped with about 2,000 hectares of their land.
Villagers said last week that their community, the only remaining Suoy population in Cambodia, faced extinction as a result of their loss of land to the agricultural concession.
But government officials sought to put those fears to rest, promising the Suoy that their land would remain intact and unperturbed by the firm’s activities.
“This is a sustainable development and it is banned [from] touching the community land,” said Thuk Kroeun Vudtha, secretary of state of the Ministry of Environment, while speaking in front of a packed pagoda holding about 200 ethnic minority members, including several breastfeeding mothers and elderly Suoy villagers. “I promise not to lose the community land,” he said.
Chhay Samith, head of the conservation department at the Environment Ministry echoed Mr Vudtha’s promises.
“Nothing will disappear. We protect their homes and their community land,” he said in an interview with The Cambodia Daily on the sidelines of yesterday’s event.
He added that Cambodian law dictates that land concessions should not interfere with the property of indigenous peoples and should respect their land rights at all costs.
“The law concerning naturally protected areas support minority groups,” he said. “We don’t do development along with the elimination of peoples.”
Mr Samith said that any “confusion” between the Suoy villagers and the company would be ironed out once the firmed removed boundary posts that had been placed in the area.
At the meeting, a government official and a manager from the Singaporean-backed HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd also denied claims made last week by villagers and local human rights workers that the firm had ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister Hun Seng Ny.
News of the Suoy’s grievances with the HLH firm came just days after Cambodian diplomats faced questioning in Geneva on Thursday and Friday before a UN committee on the government’s policy toward indigenous peoples. The UN panel announced Friday that Cambodia appeared unable to enforce legal protections against discrimination for the country’s ethnic minorities.
“We are not here to take away your land,” Ang Chee Yen, operations manager for HLH Agriculture Cambodia, told the assembled villagers yesterday.
“We are here to invest and show that we can work together,” he said.
Mr Ang said his company would be back in the area today in order to pinpoint which areas within the community’s land should be excluded from their plans to develop a corn plantation. Once the demarcation process is complete, he said, a new map with an updated boundary of the concession area would be produced and shown to the Suoy villagers.
“We will divert or we will talk to them to see whether they are willing to sell us their land,” Mr Ang continued, adding that the later option was probably the most unlikely.
He expressed hope, however, that the Suoy community would be tempted into signing seasonal contracts with the company, a measure he said would “develop the economy” and “bring more jobs” to the indigenous community.
But when a reporter asked a group of about 50 Suoy villagers yesterday to raise their hand if they would seek employment at the company, not a single arm was raised.
“We just want our community land to appear on the map,” said Vin Sami, 44, a villager representative, while speaking at the consultation. “Please keep our rice fields. Please remove the posts around the land.”
Under the newly agreed terms of yesterday’s resolution, Suoy families will have rights over about 6,000 hectares of land.
“I feel a little bit of relief,” said Ms Sami. “Even though there is no new map they will hopefully start removing the posts.”
Koal Panha, 20, another village representative, said she was greatly relieved by yesterday’s discussion with the government. Beforehand local officials had accused Suoy families of attempting to grab land beyond their original limits, she said.
“Now at least we see the government acknowledge our land.”
Sem Chao Sok, an investigator for rights group Licadho, trumpeted yesterday’s negotiations as a landmark example of how the government should resolve similar disputes in the future.
“The people have understood the land concession and they have successfully drawn the attention of the government,” he said.
On the sidelines of yesterday’s consultation, Mr Kroeun Vudtha denied claims linking HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd to the Prime Minister’s sister.
“She is not,” he said in response to a question asking whether Ms Seng Ny was a director of the Singaporean firm.
When asked what, if any, role Ms Seng Ny had in HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd, the firm’s Mr Ang said: “When talking to our colleagues we were not aware that she was our company’s director.”