SANDAN DISTRICT, Kompong Thom province – The spy wore a radio tucked under his shirt. He was innocuous-looking on a Honda motorbike and dressed like a villager, not like the rubber company employee he undoubtedly was. He stood on the roadside feigning interest in the wilderness near a pair of reporters, not saying hello but not leaving either. He just wanted to watch.
He had appeared suddenly, less than 10 minutes after two journalists entered Ronteah village, the site of a simmering controversy between resin-tapping villagers and a rubber company clearing the forest for a plantation.
For the next two hours, as the reporters wandered the village, the spy trailed them from house to house, barely concealing his efforts with a story that he was on an errand in the same area, or had come to visit a friend.
“No, no, I am not following you,” he shouted when one of the reporters confronted him after he had followed them to a villager’s home. “This,” he said, his arm stretched around the villager, “this is my friend.” The man he comforted lost most of his resin trees to the rubber company last year. He gave an uncomfortable smile.
Friends are everything in Ronteah village these days, but it’s all about having the right ones, as this forested area in northern Kompong Thom province is incorporated into the sprawling Tumring Rubber Plantation.
Some 6,200 hectares of land will be cleared in the coming months for the plantation, which lies at the northern end of Hun Sen Trail, a roadway running north from Kompong Thmar on the road from Kompong Thom to Siem Riep.
Reporters came to this area to talk to people about the rubber company’s presence. The reporters were going to ask if the government-owned Chup rubber plantation was intimidating them into silence about rubber company plans to clear the forest around the villagers’ homes.
Now, the spy in tow, the line of questioning seemed superfluous.
This area was chosen because of its red soil, considered the best for rubber trees. But it’s also home to indigenous people who have tapped resin from the trees for generations. The two sides have fought off and on throughout the creation of the plantation.
What will happen here in the coming months is an experiment that supporters say will benefit the local people, even as it robs them of their traditional means of life. The rubber company will need thousands of employees to harvest its plantation and those people will undoubtedly be the same ones who are watching their forests disappear.
Fears that the plan will not actually benefit the local people led villagers from this area to join a group who had traveled to Phnom Penh on Dec 5, standing outside the Department of Forestry in a failed bid to meet with government officials to ask about plans for their homeland.
The villagers were cleared from the office’s front gate; several were hospitalized. The incident led Prime Minister Hun Sen to order the government to fire its logging watchdog, UK-based Global Witness, on charges that the agency incited the villagers to protest.
It’s hard to imagine that it would take much inciting.
“The rubber company is very strong,” a villager told reporters recently. He said he has protested their plans in the past, but did not travel to Phnom Penh on Dec 5.
Many of the families in the area have seen their generations-old family resin businesses shrink in the past six months as the rubber company plows the forest under to make way for the plantation. Typical family holdings of 250 to 500 trees have shrunk to 50 or less, said a villager.
“We are very concerned that we will be affected by the rubber plantation because since the time of our ancestors we have depended on forest byproducts, and if the forest is gone, our livelihood will face difficulties,” said the villager.
“We think that rubber is an industrial crop which could produce high yields, but we have no such experience in this and if this area turns into a rubber plantation we will have no rice to eat.”
The government-appointed forestry monitor Global Witness said in its latest report of forest crimes that a resin tapper lost 26 trees in the Colexim logging company’s concession north of Kompong Thom between June and August of last year. A subcontractor working for the Mieng Ly Heng concession felled them, Global Witness reported.
The situation was considered dire last June, when a villager protest ended only when soldiers working for the company fired at the villagers. Three more complaints have been filed against the company this year, according to an official with the Kompong Thom provincial office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The official, who asked not to be named, said Thursday that the villagers withdrew their complaints after he explained to them the benefits promised by the rubber company.
For those who go along with the plan, the rubber company will provide three hectares of the plantation. The land will be dotted with rubber trees, but in the spaces between the trees people will be allowed to grow corn, beans and rice, the official said.
When the rubber trees reach maturity, each family will be expected to harvest the trees and sell the rubber resin to the company.
Some 11 of the 81 families in Ronteah village have agreed to grow and maintain the rubber trees on their land, but the rest of the families have not yet made their decision. No discussion was made between the villagers and the company before the decision was made. There was no agreement from the villagers.
“We do not want to grow rubber trees because more trees will be cleared,” said one villager. “We are concerned that this area will become devoid of trees in the future.
Said another villager: “I have grown about a hectare of rubber plants. In fact I do not want to grow it because I have no experience at all. But I cannot oppose the powerful.”