Khaou Chuly Group President Khaou Phallaboth sees the future of Cambodia in large-scale agro industry, so he is pressing forward with plans to create a 2,705-hectare rubber plantation in Mondolkiri. The only thing standing in his way are hundreds of hilltribe families who say they’ve been living on the land for more than three decades.
The controversy, said Khaou Phallaboth in an interview last week, is indicative of the many hurdles hampering the growth of agro-industry in Cambodia. And development of Cambodia’s rural northeast, he said, by firms that will maximize the land’s productivity is the best hope for strengthening the country’s economy.
“That’s a real thing for Cambodia, more than garments, or tourism. That’s how we can reduce poverty,” he said.
Hilltribe communities and their supporters, however, say business and political leaders need to rethink their vision for agricultural development, particularly in the northeast.
“[The hilltribes] must give access to other citizens as well to go there and work to create industries,” Khaou Phallaboth said.
In his view, it is nonsensical for 817 ethnic Phnong families to lay claim to all 2,705 hectares of his government-awarded land concession in Pech Chreada district’s Bousra commune, which he received a 99-year lease on last year.
“To my eyes, if everybody in Cambodia could claim such things, there would be civil war…. You cannot say: I live there, I live there, I live there, I live there,” he said.
And while conceding that some of the hilltribes’ claims may be legitimate, Khaou Phallaboth said many of the indigenous villagers are “being manipulated” by officials who want to profit off of his company’s land concession.
But for ethnic Phnong villager representative Dy Plong the issue at hand has nothing to do with obstacles to the rise of agro-industry, but trying to hold onto the land they rely on to survive.
Unique to the hilltribes is their system of rotational farming, Dy Plong said, which in this case spreads over all 2,705 hectares of the concession and is used by all 817 families for their upland rice crops and forest gardens where they grow bananas, mangos, corn and yams.
“Where can we do farming?” he asked.
During a meeting last week in Phnom Penh between representatives of the ethnic Phnong community in Bousra and the Khaou Chuly Group, Mondolkiri Deputy Provincial Governor Nha Rangchan told how the Phnong had harvested the land in question since the 1970s. That stopped, however, when Khaou Chuly started bulldozing in April to make way for rubber trees.
“I stand in the middle of the case, but in fact the company violated the hilltribe’s farming land,” Nha Rangchan said.
At the end of the meeting, the Khaou Chuly Group agreed to respect the hilltribes’ land claims if proven true by the provincial government, and to provide compensation to those affected, Khaou Phallaboth said.
He added in interview that he had not ruled out giving some of the land back or working with the hilltribes to develop the area.
But in the meantime, the company plans to begin planting any day now, he said.
Separate from Khaou Chuly Group’s concession, the Interior Ministry is currently negotiating disputes between hilltribes and companies regarding four other land concessions in Mondolkiri province, ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An said.
Land disputes, large and small, have also erupted all over neighboring Ratanakkiri province, which was also until recently a province predominately populated by hilltribe communities.
The northeast’s development push comes in part from the government’s Triangle Development Strategy, which aims to develop northeastern provinces adjacent to Vietnam and Laos, which are abundant in land, minerals and rich soil, said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association.
Yet dispute resolutions are not coming easily, experts say, as one camp seeks to establish large plantations while the hilltribes seek to protect their ancestral lands.
The Land Law and Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions provide sufficient provisions to avoid conflicts with developers and protect indigenous peoples’ land rights, said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum.
“Therefore if conflicts occur, it is because these legal frameworks are not being implemented, complied with or enforced,” Chhith Sam Ath said by e-mail Wednesday.
In addition, the Cambodian government voted in favor of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which gives indigenous peoples the right to claim ownership to their ancestral lands.
Gordon Paterson, an adviser at an NGO in Ratanakkiri that promotes networking among hilltribes, said everyone seeks the best soil for farming, so the same lands sought by developers are also likely to be the most densely populated by hilltribes.
Evictions cause the hilltribes to either clear more forestland for farming or to start harvesting the same land year after year, leading to a decrease in the yields and food insecurity, he said.
And the best future for the country and the northeast may not be large agricultural companies, Paterson said.
Studies show small farms in Vietnam are more productive than large-scale industrial plantations, he said, and Ratanakkiri’s indigenous peoples are already the nation’s biggest cashew producers.
“Small holders are more productive and environmentally sustainable than these large-scale plantations, which usually require large amounts of chemicals, pesticides and fossil fuels in order to be maintained,” he said.
A resolution to the disputes, Paterson said, could be joint partnerships between local communities and private investors, he said, or just keeping the land in the hands of small farmers.
“If the country is serious about poverty reduction, that’s what they should be doing,” he said.
“The local people are the best resource the country has for developing the land for the benefit of the national economy,” he added.