Villagers Would Rather Die Than Give Up Land

Poverty-stricken villagers eke out a living in Kompong Speu province’s Phum Thmei village by collecting rattan and thatch and cultivating fruit trees in land they say is too dry even to grow vegetables.

Despite the arid soil, residents said last week they would die before giving up their land.

“Where would we live?” asked one villager.

But the villagers may be forced to leave the land they carved from the jungle, since their homes sit on a plot of several thousand hectares embroiled in a 5-year-old dispute between government officials, villagers and a private company.

The dispute, which has heated up in recent days, is emblematic of what Peter Leuprecht, the UN special representative for human rights in Cambodia, called an increasing problem in the country. “Demographic pressure and an accompanying rise in demand for land by a growing number of interests means that the problems associated with land have continued, and are growing,” Leuprecht wrote in his report, dated December 2003.

“The impact on lives and livelihoods has been acute among the rural poor, many of whom barely survive,” he wrote.

In Phum Thmei, villagers said plainclothes military police officers went to the village Wednes­day, ordered the 306 families off their land and threatened to ar­rest three men who military police accused of being ringleaders for a scheme to seize land belonging to You Ay, secretary of state of the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs, villagers said.

Four years ago, You Ay purchased 1,000 hectares that encompass Phum Thmei. Earlier this year, she filed complaints with the Kompong Speu governor and the provincial court, accusing 306 families in Phum Thmei of “anarchic land grabbing,” with the intention of holding onto the land and selling it when it appreciates in value, according to court documents.

In July 1999, Henan (Cambodia) Economic and Trade Development Zone company signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture for a 70-year lease on 4,100 hectares of land to build an agro-industrial plantation, according to a copy of the agreement.

Several months after that contract was signed, You Ay reached an agreement with local officials to buy 1,000 hectares within the Henan concession, according to official purchasing documents. Commune and provincial officials signed off on a map marking her land.

You Ay said she bought the land from villagers then living at the site, according to the official minutes of meetings between provincial officials, You Ay and Henan representatives to discuss the land dispute.

Some of those residents have since said that she strong-armed them into selling the land at prices far below market value, said lawyer Heng Pong, who is representing more than 100 families in complaints against You Ay. Others said she took their land by bulldozing through their rice field.

Heng Pong, however, said You Ay was a victim of corrupt land dealers who took money from her, but never paid villagers.

Phnom Sruoch district deputy governor Pich Chantha said the villagers sold You Ay the land and then refused to move.

“I found that You Ay is also the victim,” he said Thursday.

You Ay was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment.

Ministry of Agriculture officials and provincial authorities said they are trying to negotiate a compromise.

“The problem is very complicated, and very difficult to resolve,” said Kith Seng, director of the Planning, Statistics and Internal Cooperation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture. Officials from his department submitted a motion last month to Minister Chan Sarun to find solutions, he said.

Residents of Phum Thmei, however, say they have no option other than to stay where they are.

“Villagers are poor and they need land to farm and live,” said a 38-year-old man Thursday.



Related Stories

Latest News