Chet Borei district, Kratie province – With the mid-afternoon sun glaring down, Khem Pruonh wipes a pool of sweat from his forehead and takes a break from slicing through chest-high scrub.
“This land will make our life better than before,” the 32-year-old says as he takes a short break from clearing his new three-hectare plot. “We can grow enough crops for eating, and we now have more hope in our life than before, when we were living in a village. We will not be poor anymore.”
Indeed, for hundreds of poor families in Kratie province, there is renewed hope for an end to their impoverished struggles. Trekking through the shrub and forest as far as the eye can see, poor families there have begun converging on a massive social land concession believed to be the first of its kind in Cambodia.
Mr Pruonh, his 5-year-old daughter and his wife, 31-year-old Buon Roeung, are one of more than 500 families to have received land in this 4,000-hectare area in Kratie’s Chet Borei district via a government-run lottery last November.
Despite the trees and undergrowth, the first poor families to move onto the land—located along a 7-km strip of National Road 7 about 20 km northeast of Kratie town—say it is fertile enough to make the arduous task of clearing it worthwhile.
“I am not sure if I will plant corn or rice yet,” Mr Pruonh said, adding that, at the time of the interview earlier this month, he and his wife had put five days’ work into clearing their land and were about five days away from planting crops.
In a recent interview in his Kratie town office, Karl Gerner, chief technical adviser for the German development agency GTZ, which is working with district and commune authorities in distributing the land to the needy, called the program an “unprecedented plan to help Cambodia’s poor families” and said it was a pilot that would hopefully provide a model for similar concessions in other parts of the country.
“The label ‘social land concession’ may have been used before, but I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before in Cambodia,” he said. “These are families who, for several reasons, are seriously poor, and now have an opportunity to pick themselves up. They have hope.”
The initial pilot project includes 20,000 hectares of land in Kratie, Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham provinces, though Mr Gerner said work in Kratie was far more developed than in the other two neighboring provinces. Concerns over unexploded ordnance along the Vietnamese border had stalled the Kompong Cham project, he said, while work was still in the planning stages in Kompong Thom.
The government, he said, reserved the land for the social concession in 2002, and began reaching out to poor villagers through commune and village officials to explain the process. Any family with at least two members was eligible to apply, but only if the family lived in Sambok or Chang Krang communes, both of which have land in the concession area.
After receiving the applications—1,114 in all—GTZ and commune officials ranked all applicant families from most to least poor, using a formula accounting for income as well as land owned, Mr Gerner said. Then, the eastern half of the land concession area was divided into 525 plots of agricultural land measuring one, two or three hectares in size.
The 525 poorest families identified in the application process were then allotted land for agricultural use via November’s lottery. There are also 20-meter-by-40-meter plots of land for residential purposes that have not yet been distributed.
“There was not enough room or resources to implement the entire concession with all the applicants right away, so we decided to distribute half the land now and half at a later time,” Mr Gerner said.
Families of two to four people were eligible for two hectares of agricultural land if the family owned half a hectare of land or less elsewhere in the province, and one hectare if the family owned more than half a hectare but less than two hectares. Families of five or more were allotted three hectares or two hectares under the same criteria.
One issue faced by poor families moving onto the concession area, Mr Gerner said, is that they cannot afford to spend the time needed to clear and cultivate their new land. So, despite his reservations about providing “handouts,” he said, GTZ has offered families $25 and a small amount of rice to plant so the families can get a head start to cultivate the land in time to harvest some crops this year.
Kaing Nhai, a 35-year-old farmer, and his wife, Yin Sambath, 40, said they were able to move onto their new 2-hectare plot because of these supplies, and they were optimistic about their future on the land. The couple—who were living in a makeshift tent on the land—said they received $25, agricultural tools, four grams of rice per day to eat and rice crops to plant.
“We now have hope that we have land where we can grow enough rice for ourselves,” Mr Nhai said, adding that it would take about two weeks of work to clear the land in preparation for planting the rice crops. “We also have hope for the future, that our children will have land for themselves as well.”
Mr Nhai said his mother became seriously ill several years ago, and he was forced to sell his land to pay for her medical treatment. He said he had not owned any land since, and he and his wife had been working in others people’s rice fields for about $2 per day, which was enough to buy food for themselves and their son.
The project, which is being funded by $11.5 million from the World Bank – 80 percent of the total a grant, 20 percent a loan, requires that on the residential plots, families have one year to move onto the land and must live on it for at least six months per year. On the agricultural land, families have three months to begin clearing and cultivating the land. After five years of showing they are using the land as intended, they will receive land titles and be free to use the land as they wish, though Mr Gerner said the government would discourage families from selling the land even then.
Mr Gerner’s description of the application and allocation process for the land made it sound almost foolproof. “Make it simple – that’s the key in planning this project,” he said.
But it isn’t that simple, not for Chhom Sron, a 43-year-old mother of seven, who said she and her family moved from Kratie town to their home in Sambok commune in early 2002, not knowing it was part of a planned social land concession.
She claimed that she had paid cash for the land – though she was not sure from whom she had bought it – and still owes a moneylender $1,000 from the purchase. Her husband and their seven children, she said, had worked to clear and cultivate the land, and now they are being ordered to move by district authorities who accuse them of snatching land intended for poor families.
“Now, I may have to go back to the town and become a beggar,” she says between bursts of tears. “I’ve almost gone crazy. I’m almost suicidal; I have nothing now.”
Mrs Sron’s family is one of dozens that district authorities say moved onto the land after it had been reserved for the concession. Families living on the land before 2002 were allowed to stay, but at least 130 families had moved onto the land illegally after that cut off date, according to Chet Borei Governor Suon Nhak. He said the government had warned the “encroaching” families since November 2006 that they would be forced to leave the land, saying letters had been delivered and the message spread via village chiefs in the district.
“We announced it through loud speakers, put signs on poles on the land and even handed out announcement letters to the families,” he said.
So on May 7, Mr Nhak and district police officers arrived, chainsaws in hand, and forcefully removed the homes of families that he said had not agreed to move on their own from the social land concession.
The district government has offered the families 20-meter-by-40-meter plots of land in a strip further north along National Road 7, called the provincial development zone.
Indeed, Mr Gerner, the GTZ consultant, said the government’s decision to relocate the 130-plus families was a “generous” one, and said the families were entitled to nothing.
“What kind of message does it send that these families can skip the entire process, move onto land that is not theirs, and get free land out of it?” he asked. “Still, it shows that the project is about helping people.”
Mr Gerner said the government had been told by some of the “encroachers” in 2007 that they would leave the land willingly once the concession project was under way. He said the government was “naive” to believe this offer, and painted a picture of wealthy families attempting to snatch land from the poor.
“It may have been a bit…naive to believe the families would leave willingly, considering many of them were willing to go snatch this land from the poor families in the first place,” he said.
Steven Schonberger, a World Bank official based in Washington who is overseeing the project, said in a recent interview at the Bank’s Phnom Penh office that he had not visited the concession land since the lottery had been held, and so he did not know specific details about the conflict. But he said it is important that any resettlement issues be dealt with fairly and in a way that does not compromise the intent of the project.
“Above all else, the objective here is to help the poor families in the region, but that can’t be accomplished by kicking out someone who has the right to be there,” he said, adding that the government had reserved hundreds of hectares of land in the area for families that lived there before 2002.
But Mrs Sron said she had received no notice of the imminent eviction, and offered to move her home herself when police arrived with chainsaws to remove it for her.
“They came here and were about to cut my house down, but I begged them to wait and let me remove it myself,” she said. But the plea was to no avail – during the interview in front of her former residence, only four stubs remained from what used to be her house. The officials also removed her crops over her objections, she said.
“I asked them to keep the plants and crops for other villagers, but they told me they needed to destroy them,” she said.
Mr Nhak, the district governor, said the plants had to be destroyed to prevent future conflicts over the land between the evicted families and poor families granted the land in a lottery.
“Previously, we kept the plants, and the people who were evicted came back to claim the land using the plants as evidence, so we decided to cut all crops and plants to end that problem for the new villagers,” he said.
A second family seen at the site of their former home in the days after the eviction echoed Mrs Sron’s sentiments.
Hah Sethour, a 42-year-old farmer, said he too had received no prior notice of eviction and that he and his family of four now faced an uncertain year ahead as they search for a new source of food.
“I will face a lack of food to eat in the next year because all my crops have been cut down,” he said, as he took a break from rebuilding his home on his new land in the provincial development zone.
“We would like the government to help by providing us some food and providing me more land to grow crops,” he said, adding that the 20-by-40-meter plot could not grow enough food to support his family.
But Mr Gerner seemed skeptical of the families’ claims of poverty, as well as their claims that the government had failed to notify them of the evictions to come.
“If these families are really so poor, they should have applied for land via the appropriate process,” he said. “That’s really the issue: which families did follow the right process, and which families did not?
“The government authorities really put a lot of effort into communicating with villagers about this project. If these families did not know about it, I don’t know what else the government could have done.”
“Most of these families have phones, some have cars—they certainly have more than enough to say they are not poor,” he said. “But any families who think this has brought great hardship on them can apply for the second phase, and if they qualify they will be given land. Our focus is on helping the poor families in this part of the country get a new opportunity.”