Vietnam’s state rubber producer Vietnam Rubber Group this month began road construction to service a new plantation which villagers fear may overlap with their farmlands on the edge of Prey Long forest in Preah Vihear province.
The company and local officials appeared to disagree Thursday on the anticipated size of the plantation. And villagers say they have yet to be consulted even though the company has drawn a boundary around its concession and a Vietnamese crew on April 7 began paving a road to the concession in neighboring Kompong Thom province.
The largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia, the 3,600-square-km Prey Long forest is situated between the Mekong and Stung Saen rivers and has been heavily damaged by illegal logging and now-dormant timber concessions.
Villagers said Thursday their farmland abuts the densely wooded areas of the forest.
Keo Puth, 67, a rice farmer in Reabroy commune, in Preah Vihear province’s Rovieng district, said in an interview Thursday that his family had farmed the same land for “generations.”
Villagers recently noticed red and blue posts marked PNT that appear to mark the boundaries of an area that surrounds their farmland. PNT is a subsidiary of Vietnam Rubber.
There has not yet been any consultation with local residents about the planned concession, he said.
“We do not know exactly how much of our farmland will be cleared by the company,” he said. “The commune chiefs say they do not know also.”
“Now that we have the farmland, our lives are hard. If we lose the farmland, it will be even harder.”
Soy Savoeun, 30, who trades cashew nuts in Sandan district’s Meanrith commune in Kompong Thom province, said Thursday that on April 7 he saw a six-person Vietnamese road crew operating heavy equipment marked PNT.
Mr Soy Savoeun and local residents interviewed Thursday in Phnom Penh said as much as 50 km of road construction had been completed and that a local community representative had been told by a PNT employee that the company planned to clear 250 hectares on either side of the road for eucalyptus and rubber trees.
Yin Yeth, an employee in charge of investment at Vietnam Rubber who declined to give his precise title, said Thursday that that the concession will be 6,000 hectares and that Vietnam Rubber remains in negotiations with the Agriculture Ministry.
“The company obtained barely 6,000 hectares because there is not much land because in places it affects the villagers,” he said. “The company has already conducted an environmental impact assessment. That’s why the ministry agreed to give it to us.”
However, Rovieng District Governor Keat Kimtol said Thursday that PNT’s concession was in fact to be joined with another concession with the same owner, the aim being to circumvent the 10,000-hectare legal limit on land concessions.
“PNT and Thy Nga companies are owned by the same person,” he claimed. Together, both concessions will be 13,000 hectares, he said.
“I would like to send a message to the villagers. Please, don’t worry. I am standing behind the people…. If the companies touch their land, they can complain against them based on the law,” he added.
Agriculture Ministry Secretary of State Chan Tong Yves referred questions Thursday to Undersecretary of State It Nody, who is in charge of economic land concessions. He could not be reached for comment.