Fearing the loss of their farmland and livelihoods, a group of Kompong Thom province villagers filed complaints Monday over what they say is the systematic destruction of their land by bulldozers operating for a government-owned rubber plantation in their commune.
The bulldozers have run over 28 hectares of farmland since Jan 14, the villagers say, and show little signs of slowing down as the rubber company expands across their cashew, rice, bean and banana crops.
The villagers say they have tried to block the bulldozers and for several days this month they stood directly in front of the machines to prevent them from moving, but the assistant chief of their Tum Ar village, in Tumring commune, has ordered them to move.
The assistant village chief told people to file their complaints with higher authorities in the government and if, at a later date, the villagers’ land rights are proven, the rubber company will give the land back, the villagers claimed the assistant village chief told them.
The confrontation comes one week before a major meeting of international donors and the Cambodian government that is already expected to produce a strong statement from the international community over the government’s forestry practices.
An attempt to reach government spokesman Khieu Kanharith Monday evening was unsuccessful.
A Western forestry expert said the rubber company is operating on a land concession that seems to be a violation of the current moratorium on logging: Every time the rubber company expands it hires the Colexim logging company to clear land for its rubber trees, in effect giving the timber company some logging business.
“The government said this is a land concession, but these keep getting bigger every year. It’s an attempt to circumvent the moratorium,” the expert said.
The villagers filed complaints Monday with commune, provincial and district officials. They have also filed a complaint with the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 18 local NGOs.
The villagers have claims to their land based on a provision of the 1992 land law that gives legal ownership of a plot of land to anyone who occupies and develops the land for five years.
A revised land law recently passed by the National Assembly recognizes such ownership agreements.
A villager who says her family has lived on a piece of Tum Ar village land since her great-grandfather settled there years ago said she began farming the area in 1998, clearing some of the virgin forest that had been harvested by her family for generations for resin and vines.
“I have been there since I was very young,” the villager said.
The rubber company arrived in August 2001 and at the time promises were made by Prime Minister Hun Sen that the villagers’ lands would not be harmed.
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