Pursat Farmers Grateful—But To BHP?

Kandieng district, Pursat province – It has been more than a decade since the Charoeuk dam has diverted any water to the surrounding rice fields here.

But after two years of rehabilitation of the 97-meter dam, water is again starting to fill the 11-kilometer canal which branches off the Pursat river in Sya commune and feeds into nearby farmland.

The canal–which along with the dam was built in 1976 during the reign of Pol Pot–is planned to irrigate up to 11,000 hectares of arable land. Construction workers from the Ministry of Water Resources have dug the canal down from half a meter in 2006 to over three meters today to capture more water to grow more food.

During next year’s dry season, once newly created channels from the canal start to funnel water to nearby rice fields, villagers say they will be able to grow rice throughout the dry season, which typically falls between December and May.

“Because my fields are far away and it is so dry, I can usually only make three or four tons of rice per year,” Leam Liet, 48, a rice farmer in Sya commune, said last week from his stilted house that borders the canal. “But that won’t last long.”

Mr Liet, who owns three hectares of farmland about 500 meters from the canal, is like many rice farmers here who hope the government’s irrigation project will double their annual rice yield. Last month, Mr Liet made a personal investment of $2,300 in a Japanese plough in expectation of the additional workload from tending to his rice fields during the long, hot dry season.

Unbeknownst to Mr Liet and the workers in charge of the project, however, the government says BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, which recently announced net profits of nearly $5.9 billion in 2009, helped financing the project.

Srey Ang, 31, a rice farmer who owns three hectares of land behind her house in the adjacent Sre Sdok commune, is also hopeful of a bountiful dry season next year. She credits Prime Minister Hun Sen for the irrigation project.

Currently she musters up a modest yield of 2.1 tons a year, or about 750 kg per hectare–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the average yield in 2009 was 2.83 tons per hectare. Her rice fields currently stand parched. The soil hard like concrete.

“After the channels are finished I hope to see my standard of living improve,” Ms Ang said, estimating that next year’s yield could rise to as much as five tons. “Soon I will be able to grow rice in both seasons.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week that BHP had contributed a one-off payment of $2.5 million for the project.

His comments were inspired after news reports said last month that BHP was the target of a US bribery investigation reportedly concerning payments to the Cambodian government. Mr Hun Sen defended the BHP payments last Tuesday, saying they were legitimately used for the Pursat irrigation project as well as for schools in Mondolkiri province.

“It was not against the law,” he said at the time.

BHP has not answered questions about the government’s claims to have used the money for the project in Pursat. In 2008, BHP denied paying any bribes but said it had closely controlled $1.5 million in spending from a $2.5 million social development fund devoted to Cambodian NGOs and had also paid $1 million to the government for a bauxite exploration.

The company made no mention of a dam or of irrigation projects in Pursat. Global Witness said last year that the payments were not officially recorded.

According to a pamphlet released by the Ministry of Water Resources in March last year at the dam’s inauguration, the government spent about $3.14 million on the irrigation project in Pursat, of which about $510,000 went to pay for the resettlement of local residents.

The pamphlet, marked “Royal Government’s Fund,” made no mention of any BHP funding. Where much of the funding for the project may have come from is still unclear.

At least one of the organizations mentioned by BHP in 2008, the Danish Red Cross, said last month it received $132,362 from the mining company’s social fund for Mondolkiri water hygiene projects, meaning that at least some of the BHP money did not go toward the $3.14 million dam project.

Eang Sophalleth, an assistant to the Prime Minister, said yesterday he knew nothing about any government social fund. His comments were echoed by Secretary of State for the Ministry of Water Resources Phang Sareth and the ministry’s Cabinet chief Chan Youttha.

“I know the existence of the fund and it’s coming from contributions for social welfare or emergency actions but not in details,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith wrote in an e-mail, referring further questions to the Council of Ministers. Council spokesman Phay Siphan said he had no information about the social development fund.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

After the Charoeuk dam was built in 1976, years of social unrest meant the dam fell into disrepair and by 2000 had been rendered completely inoperable.

The rehabilitation of the Charoeuk dam began on Dec 29, 2006 and finished Dec 20, 2008. The project also consisted of eight sluice gates along the length of the main canal and a secondary canal stretching 5.5 km is also underway.

Three of the gates on the main canal are due for completion in one month and the others along with all the channels feeding the water to the rice fields will be in place for the next dry season, said Samrit Met, a construction worker on the site.

Kandieng district governor Sok Lymut said the irrigation project will benefit at least 3,440 families in 33 villages through Sya, Sre Sdok, Kanhchor, Anlong Vil and Kandieng communes. About 11,000 hectares of land will be irrigated during the rainy season and 3,500 hectares during the dry season due to lower river levels.

Mr Lymut said he had vague recollections that the money given to the government for the project had come from BHP, but he had no formal record of this.

“I have heard about it [BHP] somewhere when I attended a meeting, but I can’t remember when,” he said.

Khoy Sokha, Pursat provincial governor, also denied knowledge of any payments coming from BHP and referred questions to the Ministry of Water Resources.

In 2007, Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor described the payments from by BHP as “tea money,” a term which can describe an unofficial commission. The government has since denied on several occasions that the phrase referred to anything illicit.

In a speech on March 18, 2009 during the inauguration of the Pursat-based irrigation project, Mr Kean Hor again referred to the BHP money.

“On Oct 11, 2006 I got a direct phone call from Samdech from Australia confirming that we got the money to build our Charoek irrigation system,” he said according a transcript.

Mr Kean Hor said the 48 irrigation projects were currently being construction nationwide with funds of $77,654,700 from the government and development partners.

In the light of the reports BHP’s bribery investigation and the announcement by the Prime Minister last week that French oil firm Total had paid a total of $8 million into a “social fund” and $20 million as a signature bonus, environmental and aid groups have called on the government to make details on government revenues from oil, gas and mining firms public.

There is still no public knowledge on how the government’s so-called social fund works, who pays for it, what the fund’s balance is and how money is allocated.

Villagers in Kandieng district are hopeful their rice fields will be green come next year’s dry season, whoever pays for it.

Out Yam, 49, has already begun pumping water from the canal to water her farmland, which amounts to about one hectare. If she can grow rice during the dry season she says her annual earnings could increase from about $500 to $1,000.

“When they release the water I am happy,” she said, while tending her bright green rice paddy only meters away from the recently rehabilitated main canal. “Right now I can see my sons’ future. I will have my future. I will have the rice to eat.”

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