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Plantation to be nationalised

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Ministry of Agriculture says it will seize rubber plantation in Ratanakkiri province following dispute between Tai Seng Company and workers over rubber prices

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HENG CHIVOAN

The dispute has centred on the rubber prices offered by Tai Seng Company.

THE Ministry of Agriculture has said it will nationalise a rubber plantation in Rattanikiri province to solve for good an ongoing price dispute between a workers collective that has long-held harvest rights and the private company licensed to buy the resin.

Forestry Minister Chan Sarun said the government had hoped the solidarity group led by Khin Sok would come to an agreement with the Tai Seng Co, but had decided to work with the provincial authority to confiscate the Borkeo Rubber Plantation as state-owned property. "The time is right to end this problem," he said.

The plantation has been controlled since the early 1980s by one of many workers collectives, or solidarity groups, set up to manage the country's land resources, but had always remained in government hands as state-controlled land.

In 1997, the government granted Tai Seng a 70-year concession to 3,500 hectares of rubber plantations in the province, including the Borkeo Rubber Plantation, for $300,000 per year. Under the terms of the concession, the first of its kind in Cambodia, the workers collectives were entitled to continue harvesting the rubber, as long as they sold the resin to Tai Seng.

However, group leader Khin Sok said more than 100 tonnes of solidified rubber remained scattered across the plantation after Tai Seng offered only 1,000 riels per kilogram, far below the market price of 2,800 to 3,000 riels per kilogram. "The blockage is forcing workers to starve, and we request that they solve the problem as soon as possible," Khin Sok said last week.

But Tai Seng Manager Ly Hong Sin said the group had been offering a fair price of 2,400 riels per kilogram for solidified rubber and 3,000 riels for liquid rubber.

"I never buy rubber at 1,000 riels per kilogram," he said. "If they accuse me of that, please show me the invoices." He said Khin Sok was trying to illegally sell the rubber on the open market.

Soy Sona, head of Ratanakkiri's agriculture office, said the government had moved to abolish workers collectives in late 2008 by turning them into "producer villages". To encourage the workers to agree to the proposal, they were promised that profits from sales would be split more equally among workers. Under the system in place since the 1980s, group leaders received 50 percent of the profits with the rest split among workers, but the new system reduced the leaders' share to just 15 percent, Soy Sona said.

Of the six solidarity groups working on plantations covered by the Tai Seng concession, all but Khin Sok's had agreed to the new terms, he said.

Pen Bunna, ADHOC's human rights official in Ratanakkiri, said workers benefitted from the new ministry policy, which prevented their exploitation by group leaders.

Khlaong Ny, the commune chief for Borkeo district's Tiek Chak village, said he had tried to meet with the workers to discuss the new agriculture policy, but that Khin Sok refused. "They accused me of encroaching on their estate," he said. "So, I no longer bother about that place even though the area is under the territory of my authority."

Ly Phalla, director general of the Rubber Plantation Department, said Khin Sok was trying to defy the government to claim its land as his own. "He refused to allow us and the local authority to get into his place," he said. "Then he continues to illegally collect rubber from the state-owned land to sell for his own benefit."

He added that Khin Sok wanted to sell the rubber in the open market rather that through Tai Seng to avoid paying government taxes, and suggested he was being backed by some powerful figure who had helped him lodge a complaint with the National Assembly. 

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