Though the mood was congratulatory yesterday at the inauguration of ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s sugar company – a gleaming, new facility nestled in between two hills in Kampong Speu province’s Omlaing commune – the mood just a few kilometres away bordered on desperation.
Sitting in a small house just off a red dirt road, 55-year-old Kim Ponn’s voice cracked as she explained how after two years of struggling to get her farmland back after losing it to Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company, she had hoped to attend the ceremony – which was presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen – if only to seek some answers.
“I wanted to go because I wanted to hear what my prime minister was saying about my long land dispute, and I also wanted hear what the company owner was saying,” she said, noting that she had been denied access by her commune chief due to her history of protesting a pair of adjacent concessions controlled by Yong Phat and his wife, totalling nearly 20,000 hectares. Without their farmland, she added, she and her husband had resorted to cutting sugarcane for the company for about $3 a day, a portion of which goes towards bank loans incurred after she lost her land.
“When I had my farmland, I had never borrowed money from my people,” she said, dabbing her eyes.
Since February of 2010, when the dispute began, Omlaing commune villagers have protested 96 times and orchestrated three roadblocks. Twenty-nine villagers have been charged in penal cases, and villagers have been summonsed to court to clarify their case 11 times.
However, said village representative Phal Vannak, even when willing to leave their protests at the door, villagers are still struggling to get answers to their questions.
“Police took my picture and passed it on to other police to look at, and threatened me, saying that if I went to the ceremony or took people to protest near the ceremony, they would arrest me,” he said.
It was unfair, he added, that the company had been allowed to proceed with its business while many villagers were still living without resolution.Vannak said that he had hoped to attend to ask the prime minister why his previous promise to reserve for villagers a 200-metre swath of land on either side of the road had seemingly been ignored.
Hun Sen’s deputy cabinet minister, Lim Leang Se, said he was unaware of the villager’s complaint, but that they should send a letter to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet if they wanted it addressed.
According to Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak, long-running disputes like that in Omlaing are easier for companies than complainants to weather.
“The company can certainly afford a protracted dispute, but that’s not the case with farmers,” he added. “They need to make their day-to-day living, they need to generate their income.” Rights concerns aside, he went on, the situation in Omlaing doesn’t make economic sense.
“Large-scale farmers have the possibility of economies of scale like that... but small-time farmers, family farmers, are often more productive,” Virak said, suggesting a model in which families produce their own sugarcane and act as independent suppliers for the factory.
“Something like this, a sugar factory – it can actually benefit the community if the families own the land.”
According to Vannak, however, villagers aren’t even technically employed by the factory, but rather by middlemen who arrange for the factory’s cane-cutting labour.
Indirectly hiring workers, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour section at the Community Legal Education Center, is a way in which companies make themselves “less responsible” for adhering to Cambodia’s labour law.
But legally, he added, the “main companies are still responsible for the workers, in terms of occupational health”.
Before Phnom Penh Sugar Company came, said villager Yim Lim, still spry at 83 years old, she had two hectares of land – enough for her and her four grandchildren, whom she supports.
“My recent living depends on my villagers who live around me to give [money] to me, because I am old and I cannot go to cut sugarcane for the company,” she said.