sihanoukville – When some 20 Sihanoukville families heard Prime Minister Hun Sen discuss their fate in a widely publicized speech last month, they were not unhappy; they were incredulous.
In the Oct 18 speech that caused so much surprise, Hun Sen promised land for Cambodia’s landless and praised a project by local tycoon Mong Reththy that encouraged poor squatter families in Phnom Penh to move to his plantation with the guarantee of homes, land and work.
“The model that Mong Reththy group created in Sihanoukville was successful. The owner of the plantation offered houses and land for people to live and work,” Hun Sen told a land forum at the Cambodia Development Council.
But representatives of the few families who remain in the Sihanoukville palm oil plantation along a desolate stretch of National Route 4, said most of those promises were never fulfilled.
“When I heard the speech I wanted to cry,” said one woman, who relocated in 1999 with almost 100 Phnom Penh squatter families to the plantation’s Monorom village in Prey Nop district’s Cheung Kou commune.
“Ninety-nine families were brought here in 1999 due to the propaganda of the Phnom Penh Municipality…. And we also heard the propaganda of Oknha Mong Reththy,” said village Chief Tra Chheng, 60. “But so far all those plans were not carried out and the living condition of the people now is very bad,” he said.
The families were each promised new houses, two hectares of land planted with palms, daily work on the palm oil plantation and three months of rice and chicken to help them get started, representatives said at the village last week.
For each hectare of palm oil plantation the families were supposed to receive, they had agreed to repay $2,000—by giving the plantation one third of every harvest until the debt was settled.
The promises never came close to reality.
Once the squatter families arrived, they were given the promised homes and three months’ food. But instead of palm oil land, they received one hectare of forest on a hillside nearly 10 km from their homes. The soil was of poor quality and they could not afford to clear the land of trees and bushes or buy the palm seedlings from the Mong Reththy Group, they said.
Though their homes were comfortable, with no way to earn a living, they could not survive.
The first families began moving when the food ran out, said a man who moved with the group. Most of the 20 families that remain said they barely scrape by.
“In Phnom Penh, we lived in a small shack, but at least we could earn money. Here we cannot earn enough money for our families,” said one resettled woman, who asked not to be named.
Mong Reththy defended the project Tuesday, saying he only promised 2 hectares of land—not palm oil plantation land.
He said the $2,000-per-hectare deal for palm oil land fell through in 1997 when efforts to secure loans for the deal from a bank in Singapore fell through after the 1997 factional fighting.
Villagers, however, said they were promised palm oil land in 1998 and 1999.
Phnom Penh Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun, who helped organized the resettlements, confirmed this week that palm oil land was promised but directed questions about whether the promise was fulfilled to Mong Reththy.
Mong Reththy, however, has apparently moved on. He said Monday that he is discussing a similar project with the Asia Development Bank.
“Now, the ADB contacted me for a similar project, but the ADB plans to give 5 hectares of land for each family, starting with 100 families,” Mong Reththy said.
ADB representatives and officials from various ministries visited his plantation last month and are considering the project, he said.
Steven Schonberger, World Bank rural sector coordinator for Cambodia and Laos, said this week that an ADB consultant visited the site with representatives from the World Bank, the German development agency GTZ and the government last month. The group “went down there to look at his concession and options with small holders but there was no discussion of specific funding,” Schonberger said Wednesday. The visit “was part of research to understand state land management issues.”
Residents of the so-called model village in Sihanoukville, said they are still waiting for what was promised “All the citizens here would like to appeal to the government and the companies to help the poor by offering them real work and training for the next generation’s future,” said village Chief Tra Chheng.