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Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities
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Seoung Sarat survived several bloody Cambodian regimes and civil wars. But only when his country was at peace was he shot and lost a leg.

The indigenous Tompuon man, now living in a borrowed home in the forest of Ratanakiri province, says he lost his right leg in 2009 because of a conflict with a company that was granted his land by the government to use for large-scale farming.

“When I stood up to protest, they said they had already given the land to the company. So that’s why the company ordered their soldiers to shoot me," he said.

Seoung Sarat was among a group of indigenous people resisting forced evictions from their land. They said they were living on their land and planting cashew nuts for years before the company arrived.

Seoung Sarat's struggle, like many others, was unsuccessful. After losing his land and his leg, he sought help from non-governmental organizations and filed complaints with the provincial court. But he said his case has not been processed.

Without land and a house of his own, Seoung Sarat and his family asked another indigenous community to stay there temporarily.

Way of life

In Ratanakiri, there are at least seven different indigenous groups that depend mainly on forest products for their survival. Local communities say they are facing not only the loss of their land, but also their traditional way of life.

Chhay Thy is the coordinator for Adhoc, which has been monitoring the progress of the economic land concession (ELC) implementation in this province. He said indigenous communities are used to their decades long traditions and thus unlikely to change their livelihoods.

“With regard to the indigenous people here, they lack knowledge and are not accustomed to working for companies. Based on their tradition and culture, they won’t turn themselves into those companies’ laborers," he said.

Local rights groups say the government’s ETC policy has not improved life for indigenous communities; instead, it has made it worse.

No encroachment

But Le Then Lam said concessionaires and indigenous farmers can co-exist. Lam is a branch manager of Hoang Anh Gia Lai, a Vietnamese company which has received tens of thousands of hectares of land concessions from the Cambodian government.

He says his company has never encroached on any indigenous community's land, even though the firm was granted a concession size far beyond the legal limit of 10,000 hectares per company.

“Some farmlands of villagers did not appear on our map, but when we came physically, we saw some existing farmlands. However, we have informed the local authorities about it and if the land belongs to the villagers, we keep it for them," he said.

The Ratanakiri provincial governor could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts by VOA.

But the provincial head of the Environment Department, Chou Sopheak, said granting land concessions to private companies does not cause indigenous people to lose all their land.

“In general, I can say that the government's policy won't go to the extent that our people have no land. That won't happen. The government policy is if people's land falls into concession, the government will give it back to the people," he said.

Low expectations

Recently, the government took back some land concessions from private companies and announced it would continue to do so.

Seoung Sarat, however, said he does not expect to get his land back.

“If the government really wants to reform their policy so that the people will not suffer from hunger or lose their indigenous culture, they need to distribute the land to both the company and the people," he said.

A recent report by Global Witness -- an organization that investigates human rights abuses -- says about 2.5 million hectares of land, or about 70 percent of Cambodia’s arable land, was leased to more than 270 private companies by late 2013. The report adds the land concessions have disproportionately affected forested areas where indigenous people live.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.