Pigs wander around a Jarai village in Ratanakkiri province, February 16.
O’YADAO, Ratanakkiri – Ethnic minority villagers are facing the loss of their ancient farm lands to a Vietnamese company bulldozing their land for agro-business and livestock breeding.
Sal Kheng, second deputy chief of Pak Nhai commune, said villagers initially tried to protest when Gialani Company Ltd began clearing some 100 hectares of their slash and burn agricultural land but they were scared off by threats from armed Military Region 1 guards assigned to protect the company’s bulldozers.
Although the Gialani firm started work in late 2006, by May 2007 a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) review group found that the company was not following the plans approved by the government in granting its economic concession.
The ministry ordered a temporary halt to the activities. But the work is expected to resume soon, according to a provincial agriculture department official.
“The government did not cancel the contract but ordered them to review and restudy its master plan,” Soy Sona, director of the Agriculture Department at Ratanakkiri, told the Post on February 14.
“The company had cleared more than 200 hectares,” he said, adding that clearing is expected to resume in a couple of months.
Kheng, a villager and spokesman for the ethnic minority Jarai, said farmers could no longer tend to their fields and were forbidden to cut wood from the forest for building houses.
“We are asking the government to stop the company’s activity or more than 2,000 ethnic minority villagers will starve,” he said.
Kheng said the border area was never properly demarcated before granting the rights to the Vietnamese company.
“The company has logged more than 5,000 cubic meters of valuable timber for export to Vietnam,” he said. “We are concerned with the destruction of our ancient forest. They come to destroy, not develop.”
He said villagers didn’t dare risk a protest because of the Military Region 1 guards.
O’Yadao district police chief Mar Vicheth disputed the account. He said the district authority, villagers and company had an agreement before land-clearing began and the villagers never told him about any threats.
Gialani obtained its 70-year lease for 9,380 hectares of land at O’Yadao district for agro-industry and livestock processing on April 26, 2005 from Minister of MAFF Chan Sarun.
In Ratanakkiri province, nine companies in the past few years have been granted economic land concessions. Five cover less than 10,000 hectares and four others cover just under 1,000 hectares.
Pen Buna, coordinator of local human rights NGO Adhoc, said land disputes and land grabbing have spread across the province, pitting powerful interests against indigenous people because most of the land in Ratanakkiri is ethnic minority land. “The government should encourage the titles of community land in the interest of ethnic minority villagers,” he reasoned.
Since 1992, the government has signed 90 economic land concession contracts with private companies covering nearly 1.2 million hectares in 16 provinces and municipalities in Cambodia. Of those, 37 contracts were canceled due to inactivity.