|Land grabs in Cambodia classic case of David and Goliath|
PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's economy may be exhibiting robust growth, but to those who have lost their lands to commercial developers and other businesses, it's no consolation at all.
In April, the Asian Development Bank said while the growth of Cambodia's economy will slightly moderate in 2012, it will pick up again and expand 7% in 2013 on strong exports, growing services and more stable economic outlook.
Cambodia's government has been urging investors to sink in money into the economy to be able to sustain growth.
But STAR Kampuchea, a Phnom Pehn-based NGO, said companies' answer to the call for investments has resulted in the poor losing their lands to powerful private companies.
An Op-Ed piece in the International Herald Tribune on July 18 said Cambodia's government had "signed off" almost 11,600 square miles of the country's arable land to investors and local firms, with ties to the governing Cambodian People’s Party.
This was exactly what happened in the case of tribal groups in the Mondolkiri Province, northeast of Cambodia.
In a paper published in Lok Niti, the journal of the Asian NGO Coalition, STAR Kampuchea said residents of two communes in the province's Pich Chenda districts, are facing off against companies which were granted concessions to lands tribal groups have relied on for decades for their livelihood. Residents of the two communes are from either the Koy, the Phnong or the Tompoun tribe.
"This … (is) a case that pits the weakest members of Cambodian society against powerful forces of Cambodian society and international business. This case sets a precedent, especially as private investment continues to grow in Cambodia," the NGO said.
Now, the residents, who live below the poverty line most of them being small-scale farmers, are also facing the prospect of "food insecurity" after losing lands they depend on for their livelihood and food, it said.
"Boosra is a very remote area with little infrastructure. Farming is the only option for most of its people for a sustainable livelihood. Take away their land and they lose their primary source of livelihood and food," STAR Kampuchea said.
It said that roughly 2,386 hectares of land have been cleared for agro-industry, rubber plantations, and tourism facilities in Boosra. While in in Krang Teh, private companies’ choice of development projects consists of rubber plantations and associated infrastructures such as buildings and local pathways necessary to run the business, the group said.
While companies began cultivating rubber trees in the area in 2007, they didn't build roads that could help the local economy or even create jobs. "Therefore, citizens suffer the difficulties of private investment but do not gain any of its advantages," STAR Kampuchea said.
"This trend has deeply affected 800 indigenous families in Boosra and another 339 families in Krang Teh who have relied on their land for decades," it said.
"These tribal groups face serious threats, not least of them their livelihood hanging at a balance, and the loss of their cultural identity."
The first investigation of land conflicts in Boosra was done in September 2009. While residents eventually accepted a compensation deal (but only for lands which are individually owned or family-owned), the NGO said there were inaccuracies in the way the companies measured the land to compute the compensation. Also, the deal did not apply to commonly held land and sacred ground.
Another probe was opened in 2010 involving the villagers in Krang Teh. The case was never settled though, STAR Kampuchea said.
"Lack of respect from both government and the private sector for the poor in Cambodia is the core issue amid the conflicts," it said.
"The members of the ethnic community cannot defend themselves against such powerful interests. Even with the assistance of NGOs, government has the final say and too often they pass on decisions to private businesses.
"This cycle only pushes the poor further into poverty."
The group said constant land conflicts create a problem in the social fabric between members of the local economy. "The members of the local community feel one-upped and lose trust in the private sector and government. Companies become impatient when conflicts drag on, and are discouraged from investing more money in Cambodia. It also discourages potential future investors, who may see great benefits in investing in Cambodia, but do not want to deal with the possibility of future land conflicts," it added.
STAR Kampuchea said another issue which should be examined concerning land grab cases is the impact of the developments on the environment. It raised concern that farming practices in the rubber plantations could harm the agriculture and tourism industries and the local economy.
Allocation of land concessions also compromise traditional Cambodian practices and beliefs, it said. "Not only are sacred lands and long-held practices impacted directly, but reduced livelihood among community members fosters the long-term erosion of cultural practices."
The NGO recognized that not all companies resort to land grabbing. It cited Sethey Coca-Cola among these companies. It said that companies that behave within the law have the potential to aid the local community and to embrace their manpower as a resource to help the company succeed.
Private companies should take care not to infringe on land belonging to others, STAR Kampuchea stressed. Instead, they should consider hiring local people whenever possible, and pay them fair wages. In the long term, this would create popular support for businesses in Cambodia among the population at large, it added.
The NGO said that if encouraging private companies to hire Cambodians falls on deaf ears, the government should make it obligatory, when appropriate. "Private enterprise in Cambodia should benefit Cambodians, too."