More than 350 ethnic minority families will stage a protest on Monday against an agribusiness concession within the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary awarded last year to a company which rights workers and villagers said Friday is headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister, Hun Seng Ny.
The Phnom Penh company HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd, a subsidiary of Singaporean firm HLH Group Ltd, was granted a 70-year lease of the land for purposes of investment in the country’s agricultural sector, according to a copy of a sub-decree signed by the prime minister and dated March 30, 2009,
Ethnic minority Suoy families in Kompong Speu province said that their last remaining community in Cambodia, as well as parts of their farmland, risk destruction by the development, which will grow corn in the area for export to both domestic and foreign markets.
“I will protest until my last breath to hold on to my farmland that has been used by our ancestors for generations,” said Vin Sami, 41, a villager representative for more than 350 families in five affected villages in Oral district’s Trapaing Chor commune. “We are planning to stage a big protest at the district governor’s office on Monday if there is no resolution made.”
He said that the company started clearing the land within the 255,036- hectare sanctuary in June last year after 400 Suoy minority villagers halted two tractors from clearing the forestland where they lived in Trapaing Chor commune.
Since then, villagers have met with officials from the provincial agricultural and environmental departments as well as the forestry administration in an attempt to come to an agreement. No resolution has been made.
Chheng Sophors, chief investigator for local rights group Licadho, who carried out an investigation with villagers in the area last week, said he believed HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd was owned by the premier’s sister, Ms Seng Ny.
“The firm is owned by the premier’s sister,” Mr Sophors said.
A publicly displayed map in Trapaing Chor commune clearly shows residential areas and farmland located inside the concession area, he said.
“The Suoy ethnic minority group is at risk because it only exists in this district,” Mr Sophors said. “We are critically concerned this minority group will migrate to another area.”
In a report submitted by the Indigenous People NGO Network, the matter was referred to a UN panel on racial discrimination which convened on Thursday and Friday to review Cambodia’s respect for internationally recognized human rights protections for ethnic minorities.
Contacted by telephone yesterday, Muong Thy, deputy governor of Oral district, said the government decided in January to draw up a new border for the land concession reducing it in size by 5,534 hectares and returning the remaining land to the Suoy ethnic communities. The company had originally been granted 9,985 hectares.
“But 350 families in the communities still claim that some parts of the concession overlaps with their community forest and farmland,” he said.
Mr Thy added that HLH Agriculture had agreed to protect 130 hectares of rice paddy located inside the land concession for villagers to continue farming.
Since March of last year, he said, HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd has cleared a total of 500 hectares for planting corn. Mr Thy said he was scheduled to meet with the Suoy families on Saturday to show them the new limits of the land concession.
Officials in Mr Hun Sen’s cabinet could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The prevalence of illegal logging in the largely unguarded sanctuary, which spans Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces, has long been the subject of lamentations by conservationists and donors.
“When locals cut down one or two trees, we are blamed and threatened with legal action,” said Chum Changret, a 20-year old Suoy villager. “Wow about the firm that has cut down hundreds of hectares of trees? Why is it legal?”
She said that farmland and residential property of villagers are located inside the land concession.
“Someday our small ethnic minority group will disappear from the planet,” she said.
Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary Director Chhun Chea Heng said the newly drawn concession area did not threaten the existence of the homes and farmland of Suoy families.
A woman who answered the telephone at the company’s Phnom Penh office on Friday who speak only on condition of anonymity but said Hun Seng Ny was the company’s director that the firm had already started to plant corn for sales to local and foreign markets.
On it’s web site, HLH Group said it is “[a]lready one of the biggest corn producers in Cambodia.” In late afternoon trading on Friday, HLH Group’s stock price was unchanged at 0.02 Singapore dollars per share on the Singapore Exchange.