Representatives of 273 ethnic Bunong families from Mondolkiri province submitted a petition on Thursday to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet in Phnom Penh, seeking the cancellation of an economic land concession they say has infringed on their ancestral lands.
The government awarded the Villa Development Company a 728-hectare concession in 2011 to develop a rubber plantation in Sen Monorom City.
Local villagers, however, complain that the company is clearing their resin trees and sacred forests on hundreds of hectares of land outside of its designated concession area in Sokdum commune.
After delivering the petition to Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet, five representatives of the families addressed the media at the Phnom Penh office of rights group Adhoc.
Bleuk Mal, 74, said Villa Development had cut down 37 resin trees belonging to his family over the past three years, paying what he considered inadequate compensation of $5 to $7.50 per tree.
“I need the company to pay me one million riel [$250] per tree, because my family’s living standards depend on resin trees and various forestry yields,” he said. “But now the trees are gone and the community land was already cleared by the community, so where is my family going to live?”
Both Mr. Mal and his fellow representative Khvoeung Tum, 42, said their community had made an adequate living from harvesting resin and other forest products until 2011.
Ms. Tun recounted happy childhood memories of riding an elephant into the community forest with her father to collect resin. But starting in 2011, Villa Development felled more than 400 of her family’s resin trees, she said.
“I was hopeless when the company stopped me from going into the forest to collect resin,” she said.
Thun Saray, the president of Adhoc, said he believed Villa Development was a Vietnamese company, although its ownership was unclear. He said the concession should be revoked because the company had systematically infringed on indigenous villagers’ rights.
Contact information for Villa Development was not available. However, when contacted for comment on the villagers’ claims on Thursday, Yim Luch, deputy provincial governor, revealed that his wife owned the company.
“The land belongs to my wife, and she is not Vietnamese,” he said, explaining that the company had thus far planted 381 hectares of the concession area with rubber trees.
“The company makes good development following government policy, not like the villagers’ accusations,” he added.