“Prame is our home,” 60-year-old Tep Toem told PANAP during a visit to their community. “Before us, it was our parents’, grandparents’, and great grandparents’ home.”
When PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) first met newly married couple Khum Rany and Hean Jin, the two were busy building their own traditional house on stilt with the help of their family, friends, and neighbors, along the national highway in Chhaeb district in the province of Preah Vihear. They now live a few kilometers from Prame commune in Tbeang Meanchey district, where both were born and raised as members of the Kuoy indigenous community, and where both their parents still live. Just across from their new house is the sugar mill and refinery owned by Chinese firm Heng Fu Group Sugar Industry Co., Ltd. (Heng Fu). It is reportedly one of the largest in Asia and was inaugurated by none other than the Prime Minister of Cambodia in April last year.
Rany and Hean Jin did not randomly select the location of their new house. For the couple, it is a political statement; their “everyday form of resistance” against the company that cleared the five-hectare rice and vegetable farm of Rany’s family and converted it, along with other Kuoy lands, as well as part of their sacred Prey Preah Rokar forest, into a massive sugarcane plantation.
Heng Fu is a Guandong-based company which mainly produces diversified sugar products. In 2011, it was granted economic land concessions (ELCs) over more than 42,000 hectares of land in Preah Vihear by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC). It opened its US$360-million mill and refinery in 2016 with the aim to supply sugar to markets in the European Union (EU), India, and China.
The Kuoy people of Prame, as well as the other affected communities in the province, were never consulted on the project. They only learned about the ELCs when the company started clearing their farms and forest in 2012. When they confronted the company, local authorities accused them of illegal settlement on government-owned land.
Economic Land Concessions: Cambodia’s current regime of dispossession
Most Cambodians do not have titles over the land they occupy and cultivate as a legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s policy against private property in the late 1970s. About 75-80 percent of land in the country is currently classified as “state land” and under the management of the RGC. The promulgation of the Land Law in 2001 and of Subdecree No. 146 on Economic Land Concession in 2005 allowed the RGC to reclassify “state land” into “state private land,” and lease them to domestic and foreign individuals and firms for agricultural and industrial exploitation.
Under Subdecree No. 146, ELCs can be awarded over up to 10,000 hectares of land for up to 99 years. Heng Fu, however, was able to circumvent the law and acquire more than three times the allowed maximum size of land by registering under five different companies — Heng Nong (Cambodia) International Co., Ltd., Heng Rui, Heng You, Lan Feng, and, Rui Feng.
Heng Fu was not the first company to go around the law. All over Cambodia, individuals and companies with ties to the national government were able to acquire tens of thousands of hectares of land as ELCs. According to the human rights group Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), an estimated two million hectares of land in the country are currently under 274 ELCs — 114 of which were granted to locals and 136 to foreigners (12 are categorized as “others”; 12 as “unknown”). Of the 136, Chinese firms hold 42 ELCs (over 356,560 hectares of land), while Vietnamese and Malaysian firms hold 55 (369,107 hectares) and 12 (90,844 hectares) ELCs, respectively. The number of ELCs has grown unprecedentedly in the last decade that the group declared Cambodia to be “in the grips of a prolonged land grabbing crisis, a slow-motion calamity.”
ELCs are promoted by the RGC as supposed drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction, especially in rural Cambodia. Everywhere in the country, however, ELCs have become synonymous with the physical or socio-economic displacement of people living in the concession areas. They are mostly farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples who have been occupying ancestral lands for centuries. Aside from not being consulted, affected communities in most cases were inadequately compensated, and, in cases of physical dislocation, not given proper resettlement. Their eviction from their homes and the clearing of their land were usually done with the aid of the local police, the military, and/or private security, and even the slightest resistance was often met with violence.
The socio-economic impact of ELCs
In Preah Vihear, local advocacy group Ponlok Khmer estimated that the ELCs granted to Heng Fu have affected more than 20,000 people in the agricultural districts of Chhaeb, Chey Sen, and Tbeng Meanchey. The RGC’s so-called “leopard skin” policy is supposedly in effect in the concession area, i.e., existing communities inside the more than 42,000 hectares of land leased to Heng Fu are protected by the state from physical displacement. The company, however, has encroached on the communities’ farmlands, forest, and water resources, at the expense not only of their sources of livelihood, but of their ways of life.
“Prame is our home,” 60-year-old Tep Toem told PANAP during a visit to their community earlier this month. “Before us, it was our parents’, grandparents’, and great grandparents’ home.”
“Before the company came to clear our lands, nobody in Prame ever experienced hunger,” said her 45-year-old neighbor Lan Sa Morn. “We have our farms for rice, the forest for crops, and the river and streams for fish. Now our farms and forest have been cleared, our river and streams either poisoned or dried up, our pasture lands barren. Now, many are struggling to provide food for their families.”
Most of the people from the affected communities in Preah Vihear do not want to work for Heng Fu but some are forced to do so out of the need to feed their families. If given a choice between a job at the company and their land, the people said they would choose to go back to cultivating their farms.
Young farmers such as 30-year-old Chhum Sophin of Chhoak Chey district believes that agriculture is a sustainable source of living. “Our family farm’s harvest used to sustain us for one whole year. My parents were able to send us to school with the income they get from rice farming and forest harvesting,” he said. In fact, most of the affected communities in Preah Vihear were quite prosperous before the company came to disrupt their lives.
The Preah Vihear people’s fight is sustained through the strong involvement of and solidarity between the affected communities in their bid to put a stop to Heng Fu’s operations in the province. The people of Chhoak Chey and Breus Ka’ak communities in Tbeng Meanchey, for instance, were at first silent about the injustice committed against them due to their fear of the local authorities who were aiding the company. Support from the people of Prame gave them the courage to actively engage in resistance against Heng Fu.
The people of Preah Vihear have applied a variety of tactics to stop the company from taking over their land. They have filed complaints with government officials and agencies including the Senate, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the courts, as well as with different local and international human rights institutions. They have also employed direct actions such as blocking and seizing the company’s bulldozers and backhoes, pulling out sugarcane from the plantation, and camping out in the field to prevent Heng Fu from clearing their farms at night. In some instances, the actions have resulted in small victories such as in 2016 when the road blockade participated in by six communities in Chey Sen resulted in a series of negotiations between the communities and local authorities. In others, they resulted in community members having to face civil and criminal charges before the provincial court.
It’s been six years but the RGC has yet to fully act on the complaints and demands against Heng Fu. The people of Preah Vihear, however, are not giving up the fight to reclaim their land from the Chinese company. Just this August 30, they travelled to Phnom Penh to file a petition before the Chinese Embassy to investigate the company’s operations in the province, in particular, its compliance with the Chinese government’s environmental and human rights standards.
Also, in June, Rany, who confessed that just three years ago she lacked any interest in politics, ran for commune chief under the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia’s main opposition party, during the commune council elections. Prame buzzed with enthusiasm: aside from possibly having the first woman to serve as head of their commune, they believe that Rany’s win could help in reclaiming back the lands taken away from them by Heng Fu. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old encountered a lot of difficulties in her candidacy, including the lack of financial support from her party. She lost the elections to the candidate of the ruling party.
“I will try again in the next elections,” she declared when PANAP asked if the results discouraged her from participating in politics. Her statement, while pinning hope that an elected position will put everything back to normal for her people in Prame, underlies her lack of faith that the Cambodian political and justice system will ever work on the people’s behalf.
In the meantime, Rany, who is expecting her and Jin’s first child early next year, has to take on new responsibilities as a mother.
“These are all for the future generations. The land, the forest, the streams — we are trying to win them back for our children,” she said. #
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