snuol district, Kratie province – After walking 500 meters from the main road over a stretch of recently cleared, muddy soil, Srey Sam On reached a patch of land where she could still spot some cassava she planted earlier this year.
As she looked on, a sputtering bulldozer stopped to shift gears and rolled on to clear the cassava, several tree trunks and anything else that got in its way.
“When I see them clearing my land, I get very angry. But I cannot do anything,” she said Tuesday. “First, I also protested against the company, but now there are too many military police here.”
Ms Sam On, 37, has already lost her house. It was one of three homes razed in April by Kratie provincial military police, environment officials and workers of the Sovannvuthy rubber company, after a tense stand-off with about 100 villagers that villagers said ended with warning shots fired in the air.
Thousands of farms and homes along National Road 76A here in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary now await the same fate, as the government has given 10 rubber companies the rights to vast swathes of fertile land located along 30 km of the recently upgraded road, which runs from Snuol City to Mondolkiri province’s Sen Monorom City.
Soon there will likely be very little forest or wildlife left to protect, as the economic land concessions—approved by the Ministry of Environment— cover most of the 60,000-hectare sanctuary. “Less than 10,000 hectares of forest will remain in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary,” Snuol district governor Iv Saphum said.
Mr Saphum said 21 concessions had been granted in the district since 2008, adding that “thousands”of families would lose land to rubber companies. He said Sovannvuthy’s 7,251-hectare land concessions alone would affect 867 families.
Human rights group Adhoc has said that Kratie province, where 53 economic land concessions have been granted, is the worst province in Cambodia for land disputes. And Snuol district, with 28 concessions, is its epicenter.
“Snuol has the most land disputesin the whole of Kratie,” said Ouch Leng, land program officer at Adhoc.“Each company in Snuol affects at least 200 to 300 families, while some villages are completely affected.
There are still no solutions, because authorities have no ability to coordinate with the companies.”
In Pi Thnou and Khyoem communes on the eastern edge of Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, bulldozers have already turned hundreds of hectares of land along the road into a flattened, muddy wasteland strewn with dead trees stretching as far as the eye can see. As their operations move west, they are set to clear numerous villages.
Villagers in both communes said they first heard in December that they would be forcibly evicted, after 200 families living along a 6-km stretch of road were given a government order to vacate their land within 30 days to make way for Sovannvuthy rubber company. After they protested at the provincial offices, authorities withdrew the notice.
However, villagers said land clearing began, and about 20 families have already lost their homes and farms to bulldozers. They said they organized several protests, including attempts to block the road, that were broken up by wildlife sanctuary officials and, in recent months, by military police, whose presence has served to intimidate villagers. “We’re not afraid of the company, but now they use military police…. They fight against villagers for the company’s profits,” said villager Pan Hieb, 50.
Ms Hieb said most villagers had settled in the area five to 10 years ago and explained that they were poor workers or landless villagers from Kompong Cham province and several other provinces who had come in search of farmland.
Authorities claim villagers have settled illegally in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, and it is therefore justified to remove them.
“The state cannot control the illegal squatting by villagers, so the state offers economic land concessions to companies in the sanctuary,” said Mr Saphum, the district governor, adding that all villagers along the road would have to leave and be resettled further from the road on 2,251 hectares divvied from Sovann vuthy’s concession.
Meach Hoeun, a manager at Sovann vuthy’s workers’ quarters, maintained that families had settled on the company’s concession, adding that it was up to authorities to resolve the land dispute. However, not only families that settled in the wildlife sanctuary in the past decade are being forcibly evicted.
Stieng and Banong indigenous minority communities, who have historically lived in the area, are also losing swathes of land to the rubber companies.
Mom Oeung, 54, from Srey Samrong village, a Banong-Stieng village located 2km from the road, said farmlands belonging to 50 families were being cleared by company workers.
“Right now, Sovann vuthy is stealing our land,” he said. “We are not against development, but we just want to keep some land for living,” Mr Oeung said, adding that surrounding forest used for traditional livelihoods was also being lost.“I think my 4 hectares of 12-yearold cashew nut trees will be lost.When I lose it, I will be hopeless. Where can I live?” he said.