About 80 ethnic Kuoy villagers in Preah Vihear province on Wednesday protested outside the provincial hall for a third straight day in the hope of convincing officials to intervene in their ongoing dispute with a Chinese-owned sugarcane plantation that they accuse of encroaching on their farmland.
The roughly 350 families say they have been living on the disputed land since 2003 with documented approval from local government officials, and claim that the Lan Feng company has been illegally clearing it since 2012, a year after the national government granted the firm an overlapping concession.
“Today is the third day of our protest to demand that the provincial governor [Oum Mara] stop the clearing activity of the company, because the people occupied the land 10 years before the company received the land concession,” said Sin Sam, one of the protesters.
She said the farming families also wanted the government to grant them a communal land title, a collective title meant to protect the ancestral lands of ethnic minority groups from outside developers.
Ms. Sam said provincial authorities on Wednesday asked the protesters to return to their homes while they addressed their complaints. But she said they refused to budge after having complied to a similar request from Mr. Mara in July, to no avail.
“The provincial governor, during the last protest, promised that a working group would measure out a communal land title for the people if he received our documents. The governor told us that if he gets the documents today, he will do it tomorrow. But he never keeps his promise,” Ms. Sam said.
Mr. Mara could not be reached on Wednesday, but a prepared statement from the provincial government dated Tuesday and posted online by local media, saying that officials who visited the disputed area on Monday found that the land the families were claiming was covered in forest, making it ineligible for titling.
In fact, communal titles may be granted over forested land.
Contacted on Wednesday, deputy provincial governor Sou Serey said that about 300 families living in the contested area had already received new plots of land in compensation for being evicted by the plantation. He claimed that many of this week’s protesters had either sold their new plots and come back for more, or never lived in the area to begin with.
“We have found a solution for almost all the families,” he said. “Now only a few families remain because they disagree with the solution and they want the authorities to cancel the company’s [concession].”