PHNOM PENH'S poor and homeless are again being touted as
ideal labor for big agri-business.
This time, the architect is one of Cambodia's richest
businessmen, Mong Reththy.
It is a simple and some say seductive argument:
cleaning-up the capital's streets of beggers and housing
them on the land to work for a living.
But critics are leery, pointing out the dangers and
documented failures of forcing out blocs of
under-privileged people without them knowing exactly what
they are expected to do, and as in the case of many such
experiments possbily to be exploited.
Every Saturday, the Mong Reththy Investment Cambodia Oil
Palm Co. Ltd. receives delegations from squatter
associations and NGOs at its 3,557 ha property in
It has there 50 $800 houses paid for by Phnom Penh
Municipality, which wants squatters out of the capital
and two hectares of palm plantation that goes with each
house. Houses will be raffled off and more are due be
built as the palm oil project expands.
Plantation manager Pho Vuthy explains the company will
help the ex-squatters raise the palm trees during the
first crucial, and non-productive, three years.
The families begin with a $4,430 debt to Reththy for
"start-up" costs, and Reththy will recoup this
by taking 30% of the crop prices every fortnight, so the
company can pay back its estimated $6m investment. After
five years, Vuthy says the two-hectare plots could
generate $4,400 a year.
Owner Okna Mong Reththy reports: "The international
oil palm price goes up and down. But if the price is
$110, I will pay the people $100."
The international price for the palm kernels is about
$100 per ton. The international price for the oil, per
ton, fluctuates at around $600.
Reththy owns 40% of the project, the rest is held by
investors from Malaysia (30%), South Korea (20%) and
Reththy said if people wanted to leave the estate houses,
the company would invite other families to take them
Vuthy says that crops like rice, beans and corn can be
grown between the rows of oil palm to supplement family
income in the first three years.
Critics counter that this is hardly ever possible,
because the plantation uses all the soil nutrients and
have to be fed by fertilizer from the beginning.
Vuthy says that the government has been asked to build a
school and a hospital here, and some NGOs have said they
will build a pump for each house.
Sok Leakhena, Deputy Chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal
Cabinet, says that new settlers will have the option of
doing day work on the plantation, for 5000 riel, and
growing their own crops around their houses.
But they have to grow palm on their two hectares and sell
it back to the company. Their houses aren't theirs to
Sok Leakhena admits: "The Municipality is still not
clear how long we can provide food and other assistance
[to the settlers]. At the beginning, the Municipality
cannot avoid but to help them, but at what level I cannot
Douch Sei, coordinator of the Urban Poor Development Fund
(UPDF) says that people complain that their land would
not belong to them. They would prefer to have their own
An officer for the Solidarity for Urban Poor Federation
(SUPF) was worried about the welfare of people who
decided to move to the plantation. She wants to be sure
that the company will provide for them.
"The move should be legal and according to their
will, not by force. If we let them go and are not clear
about their living conditions, they can become slaves of
the company. We work to help poor people, not make their
life more difficult." Squatters themselves have
Yim Deth, 51, a barber, has been living in a shack he
built along the Russian Embassy fence since 1993. He says
he would be happy to move if the government or a company
provided for his family. But he has to feed his family
first and if he moved he might have no job and no cash.
"I don't want to stay here but I have no choice
because I have no land and no house," he says.
"And I don't know when [the government] will push me
out of here. I need real property.
"The first thing I need is food, medical care, a
school for my kids, a pagoda, and land that I can grow
rice and vegetables. Also some people who bought houses
here will not agree to leave without receiving some
One squatter who visited the plantation, Mok Sitha, a
demobilized soldier since1992, said he was worried about
his children because they were studying. A move to the
countryside would cut them off from a proper education.
His children also had no experience in farming because
they were born in Phnom Penh.
"For city people to live on a farm is very
difficult," he said.
He said that only 40% of his community would consider
moving to the plantation since they already had jobs moto
drivers, car and radio mechanics, garment factory
workers. In the countryside, their skills would be
Sok Samy, 50, who lives on the edge of the road in front
of the ruined Tonle Bassac Theater, said she was eager to
go to the plantation because she had no job, but she had
not yet received information from SUPF.
"If I'm living here, I cannot find happiness for my
kids because I have no real house. I do know how to farm,
so I will go and live there [at the plantation] if they
tell us how to go."
Another worry for many is malaria. The plantation is
surrounded by mountains, believed to be the haunt of Yay
Mao (the grandmother Mao spirit) who inflicts
But plantation manager Vuthy scoffs: "I've been
living here for years and have never gotten