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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Relocated squatters still waiting for land and jobs

Relocated squatters still waiting for land and jobs

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URBAN squatters resettled by Phnom Penh authorities at the Mong Reththy palm oil

plantation near Sihanoukville say their lives have become intolerable as promises

of work and land have not been kept.

Relocated from Phnom Penh, these villagers hoped for a better life on Mong Reththy's palm oil plantation but instead say they are nearly starving and were better off in a city slum.

The $7m oil palm plantation and processing project, which covers 3,200 hectares,

began in 1998.

Last year squatters were resettled at the plantation in a joint scheme between the

Phnom Penh Municipality and the Mong Reththy Investment Oil Palm Co. Ltd.

The municipality paid $800 for each house on the plantation while the company contributed

another $483 per family for infrastructure.

Phnom Penh squatters who settled at the plantation were told they would receive two

hectares of land on which they would produce palm oil, as well as 500 square meters

of land to grow vegetables.

The company promised to provide the villagers seedlings, fertilizer and technical

help, as well as a market for their palm oil kernels.

It was estimated that the mature plants would eventually provide the villagers with

an income of about $4,500 a year, but during the first few years of production the

company would deduct 30 per cent from the crop payments to cover the $4,430 it spent

on the start-up costs.

In February last year 99 families moved from squatter areas in Phnom Penh to the

Mong Reththy plantation village, Monorom 1, lured by the promises of a better life.

At that time Pho Vuthy, the plantation manager, told the settlers: "You can

give up your squatter shack in Phnom Penh so the Government can develop the city,

and come here and make a good living," adding that the company expected the

Government would provide a school and clinic for the villagers.

Before the resettlement, Sok Leakhena, Deputy Chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Cabinet,

told the Post that authorities would provide some aid to the settlers after they

moved, but was not sure how much or for how long the assistance would continue.

He hoped this resettlement scheme would please NGOs who had complained that in the

past squatters had been evicted from the city without being provided with either

jobs or houses.

A year and a half later the villagers still have not received the two hectares of

land promised, they can't grow enough vegetables to feed their families, there is

little work, no clinic, and the only school is run by Christian missionaries.

Vong Chanty, 35, said she moved to the plantation in search of a better life for

her children. But the promised two hectares of land and employment in the plantation's

factory never materialized. Now without land or an income she has been forced to

send three of her four children to live with relatives as she can no longer afford

to feed them.

"I expected a good life here for my children but now I can barely provide enough

food to feed just one," she said crying.

Chanty said the people of Monorom 1 can not simply stay and wait to die of starvation.

"How can we live without food to eat? Should we just wait until we die? We must

go somewhere else to find food."

Chanty said the villagers have tried planting vegetables on the land around their

houses, but the plants died because the soil is very poor.

Villagers told the Post that on a good day they can earn about 4,000 riel by cutting

grass around the oil palms, or doing some other labor. This is about a quarter of

what they typically earned back in Phnom Penh where their day-to-day needs were less

expensive as well.

The millionaire business tycoon Mong Reththy, whose plantations provide 80 per cent

of Cambodia's rubber production, said his palm oil company still intends to provide

land for the Monorom 1 villagers so they can plant oil palms or cassava.

"We will provide land for them when they have money to buy seed to grow crops.

We will give land to whoever wants to grow crops and has the money to plant,"

said Reththy.

He said the granting of land to the villagers has been delayed only because his company

is still waiting on a loan from the Rural Development Bank to pay for preparing the

land and providing villagers with seedlings and fertilizer.

"The RDB will either lend to us, or direct to the villagers," said Reththy.

He said he has lost any hope of helping the villagers who have left Monorom 1 to

return to Phnom Penh to find work. "When you try to help people you risk making

mistakes. Only those who don't try to help won't make mistakes. I don't know what

I can do to make these people happy," said Reththy.

Ly Lang, 52, said she and her neighbors are definitely not happy about the way they

have been treated by the company.

"If [the company] gives us what they promised then we will struggle to stay,

but if not we will leave here and return to live on streets in Phnom Penh,"

she said.

She said the company gave forest land to the villagers, but then they prevented people

from clearing the land for farming.

Lang said the villagers earn a little money by picking flowers and cutting firewood

to be sold in Phnom Penh. But they have to pay a million riel in bribes to forestry

officials for every load they bring to the capital which makes their profit margin

very small.

"This is our food," said Lang, pointing to a pile of wood stacked outside

her house. "If we can't sell the wood, we have no rice to eat."

When they first arrived at Monorom 1 the company employed about 30 of the villagers

to work in the palm oil plantation, but later most were fired.

The villagers said company officials accused them of being lazy and say it is their

own fault that they remain poor and have little food.

Last year villagers were allowed to grow rice between existing palm oil trees, but

this year the company told them they could not plant because they feared a fire might

destroy the plantation.

Villagers said they are just being punished because Mong Reththy company officials

are angry that they complained to Phnom Penh authorities about being cheated.

Phnom Penh Governor, Chea Sophara, told the Post that he would rather not comment

on the situation now, but he is aware of the problems and is hoping a solution will

be found.

The villagers said they are afraid their former Governor will ignore their plight.

"We put all our hope on him. We are afraid he will abandon us," said a

villager.

The villagers want both Sophara and Prime Minister Hun Sen to visit Monorom 1 and

learn about the reality of their lives there. "Stop saying we are developed.

We have nothing. Our lives are very hard," said a villager.

They said if they could at least be given title to their houses, then they would

be able to get loans from micro credit lending agencies with which to make a living.

A villager told the Post that the people want to return to Phnom Penh, but they are

embarrassed because they feel they were fooled by the resettlement scheme.

"Our former neighbors in Phnom Penh now call us 'the wild monkeys,' or 'the

rock eating people,'" she said.

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