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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Farmers appeal against rubber baron

Farmers appeal against rubber baron

Several hundred families in Kampong Thom province have written letters to the National

Assembly and have contacted local NGOs out of concern that a deal between the government

and a rubber plantation company will cause them to lose their land.

The government announced several years ago that it wanted to increase rubber production

by encouraging companies and small-scale family producers to establish plantations.

One explicit aim of the policy was to reduce rural poverty.

The government signed a deal with Chup Rubber Plantation Company in 2001 that handed

the company 12 square kilometers of land that fell inside the concession areas of

two major logging companies: GAT and Colexim. The villagers live within the former

logging concession area.

According to the villagers, Chup told them they would be allowed to plant one hectare

of rubber saplings each year for three years. That would leave them with three hectares

of land, no matter how much land they farmed previously.

The villagers would also be permitted to plant just two crops - soya and sesame seed

- in the rows between the trees to earn money while the trees were growing, but only

for the first three years. As rubber trees take around seven years before they can

be tapped, that left the villagers staring at four years without income.

The Post was unsuccessful in its efforts to contact Chup, but Ly Phalla, director-general

of the rubber plantation directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and

Fisheries, said the villagers were under a misapprehension. Phalla told the Post

that those villagers who took the land offered by Chup would be allowed to grow crops,

including rice, fruit trees and mung beans, for seven years.

"The villagers will be allowed to act as smallholders and can grow inter-cropping

in the rows between the rubber trees," Phalla said.

Nou Phoeung, governor of Kampong Thom, said that only a few of the villagers had

holdings larger than three hectares.

"They are doing slash and burn agriculture and have not much skill in improving

their crops," he said. Phoeung said the farmers' complaints had been incited

by outsiders. He added that those villagers who suffered from food shortages in the

next few years would receive some help from the provincial government, but could

not expect to get continuous assistance throughout the period.

The National Assembly's Human Rights Commission had no record of a letter from the

villagers in its register, but the Post has seen a copy of the letter addressed to

the Assembly dated 18 October 2001.

In that letter 211 families who have lived in Tomring commune since 1983 claimed

logging concessionaire Colexim sent in 15 armed men on behalf of the Chup Rubber

Plantation Company and told them to leave. The villagers had earlier told the company

they were not interested in signing up to Chup's plan to develop the area as a rubber

plantation.

"We were told that if we did not move, the company [Colexim} would destroy our

homes with a bulldozer," stated the letter. It added that the armed men had

also confiscated hoes and knives from the villagers.

The Post visited the affected villages late last month. Mounh Hoeu is the acting

chief of Runtas village which sits in the center of the rubber concession area. He

and his fellow villagers are strongly against the plan.

"[Chup] told us that what they are doing is developing our village," he

said. "But I don't understand why they are developing us from better-off to

worse-off, from seven hectares of land to only three. We do not agree with this idea."

Hoeu said that despite protests from the villagers, Chup would not budge. The company

told them the deal with the government meant it was within its rights to develop

the area.

"The government people are all sitting in good chairs and rooms," said

Hoeu. "They do not face problems like we do."

Hoeu said 80 families lived in his village, each with between three and ten hectares

of forest land. He explained that the villagers commonly practice shifting cultivation.

Most of their income, he said, comes from tapping resin trees, but since 1995 they

have lost resin trees to illegal logging, then to logging companies that have cut

them down. Average income in his village had fallen sharply from around 1 million

riel a year to around 200,000 riel.

Worse than that, said Hoeu, was that with the forest clearance program currently

underway in the rubber concession area, income from non-timber products would disappear

entirely.

"Most of our income comes from non-timber forest products such as resin oil,

vines and wild fruits," said Hoeu. "We want to save them, because without

them we cannot survive."

The acting chief of Tumring commune, Ngoun Mao, is worried that the next generation

will have no land to support their families.

"Our population is growing day by day," he said, "but our land remains

the same size or shrinks. The red soil does not grow in the same way that vegetables

do."

Representatives of 134 families from villagers living south of the rubber plantation

area wrote October 2001 to an NGO in Kampong Thom town pleading for assistance.

"We villagers strongly do not want to change our lands to the company,"

it said. "We only want to keep our old land." Another letter stated that

some villagers owned as much as five hectares, which meant under Chup's scheme they

would lose almost half their holding.

Ou Yos, deputy chief of Khos village, agreed the villagers likely had no legal title

to the land, but said the land had been passed down to them by their ancestors. Now,

he said, Chup had taken their land and would only give them three hectares on which

to grow rubber trees instead of the crops they were familiar with.

"We are very concerned about our food supplies next year," he said. "For

a long time we have grown rice, but now they will allow us to plant only mung beans.

Who will give us rice if the mung beans fail?"

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