MORE than 300 villagers gathered yesterday in front of Krakor district hall in Pursat province and blocked National Road 5 to protest the alleged clearing of their farmland by the local company Pheapimex.
“Our livelihoods rely on farming and collecting forest products, but now the company has bulldozed and confiscated about 3-4 hectares of rice fields from each family,” said Phorn Chea, a 50-year-old villager from Kbaltrach commune.
Ngeth Theavy, a coordinator for the local rights group Adhoc, said district authorities refused to meet with the villagers yesterday to discuss their complaint. Police also prevented the villagers from entering the district hall, which prompted them to block traffic on National Road 5 for about 30 minutes.
“The villagers demand that the company stop bulldozing their farmland and rice fields as well as the natural forest,” she said.
In 1997, Pheapimex was granted a 315,028-hectare land concession spanning Kampong Chhnang and Pursat provinces. The company, which is owned by Choeung Sopheap – the wife of Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin – has come under fire because the concession is far in excess of the legal limit of 10,000 hectares.
Ngeth Theavy said the company planned to “develop agro-industry plantations such as acacia, cassava and other crops”.
Im Sarith, Krakor district governor, said he could not prevent the company from clearing land because of the 1997 concession agreement, and said the company had provided many jobs to local residents.
“We will visit the people’s rice fields on Friday,” he said. “We can ask the company to give back the rice fields if we find out that the company has bulldozed and confiscated rice fields belonging to the villagers.”
But Pheapimex representative Ty Kim Tok denied yesterday that the company had encroached on villagers’ land. “We can give the land back to them if they give evidence showing that the land belongs to them,” he said, and added that around 8,000 hectares had been planted so far.
David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, described the Pheapimex concession as “the poster child for all that is wrong with the Royal Government’s policy of granting large-scale land concessions to private firms”.
“The concessionaire appears not to have complied with any of the ... safeguard provisions in the Sub-decree on Economic Land Concessions,” he said.
“If it is allowed to continue, the ramifications are going to be devastating for untold numbers of affected families in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang.”