Cambodia has passed a “shameful milestone" of 500,000 people affected by land conflicts, with more than 2,200 families affected so far this year alone, rights group Licadho said yesterday.
The updated figures, gathered since 2000, indicate that land rights remain a central issue in the country, which continues to pit farming communities and the urban poor against powerful officials and business interests.
“These figures show that land grabbing is not just [a matter of] isolated conflicts or problems … it affects and will continue to affect people all across the country,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said.
Pilorge explained that the half-million figure only scratches the surface of the problem, as Licadho only monitors land conflicts in about half of the country.
According to Licadho, the first few months of 2014 have seen a “renewed wave” of “violent land grabbing”, with new cases affecting 2,246 families across the provinces it monitors.
That represents an almost four-fold increase on the statistics the group collected in the same period last year – when the number of families stood at 618 – and the highest number the group has recorded in four years.
According to Pilorge, the “epidemic” of land grabbing is largely the fault of the government.
“Not only is much of this land grabbing [directly] done by the government, but it is also done with the complicity of the government … protecting the interests of businesses,” she said.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed.
“The land of the people is not secure. Even people not already affected live in fear.
“They [land grabs] started a very long time ago, but they have got really bad in the past five years, because the government thinks it’s invincible,” Virak said.
Rong Ky, a fisherman in Koh Kong province, knows firsthand the devastating effects land conflicts can have on a community.
Ky had lived in his home in Kiri Sakor district for more than 30 years when Chinese company Union Development Group arrived in town.
Union Development received 36,000 hectares in economic land concessions in 2008 and about 9,000 more in 2011. With the concessions came grand ambitions to turn the area into a coastal mega-resort.
The company is accused of displacing more than 1,000 families and leaving others without compensation. Ky says the authorities were complicit in the forced evictions.
“If they [the authorities] followed government policy, they would have cut the land out of the company’s land and given it to those of us who have not agreed to relocate. They would not have cleared and destroyed our houses. They would have given us compensation,” he told the Post yesterday.
In a separate dispute, villagers in the Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, have been fighting this month against plans to build a controversial new hydropower dam, which they say would render them homeless and without livelihoods.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of local NGO Mother Nature, said “judging by the way the relocation of communities has been done in other ‘development’ projects, one can only guess that the people from the valley would be thrown into abject poverty, which is a sad way to end a culture known to be at least 500 years old”.
In the statement released yesterday, Licadho urged the government to take action on the issue by putting “a genuine end” to forced evictions and providing “fair and adequate compensation” to those already displaced. It also called on the government to stick to its promise to review economic and other land concessions, and to carry out a transparent land demarcation and classification process.
But according to Beng Hong Socheat, a spokesman at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, the government already has measures in place to settle land conflicts.
“We have a sub-decree to settle it procedurally, and we have clear working groups,” he said, adding that the government is working to uphold its promises.
Despite a moratorium issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen against new economic land concessions in May 2012 and a land-titling scheme initiated shortly thereafter, a report by rights group Adhoc last year suggested the tangible results were negligible.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, which has advocated on behalf of evicted families, said the government was obligated under international law to protect Cambodia’s most vulnerable citizens.
“Land conflicts are a huge human rights issue in Cambodia. We have seen hundreds of thousands of people displaced in [both] urban and rural areas … poor people and indigenous communities have been seriously affected by this at the hands of private companies and powerful people,” he said.
“The government has a duty to provide people with adequate housing and rights to their land under the laws of international human rights.”