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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers, agro-biz face off in northwest

Villagers, agro-biz face off in northwest

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Six hundred nuns, monks, students and Cham Muslim leaders marched on Christmas Day for peace, reconciliation and justice in support of the Khmer Rouge Trials. "We cannot build a peaceful society unless we first cultivate a peaceful heart," said Hem Simorn, a Buddhist nun who lost her family during the Pol Pot regime.

BAK NIM VILLAGE, ODDAR MEANCHEY - Villagers in three districts in northwestern

Oddar Meanchey province say they are being driven from their small farms in

protected community forestry lands by powerful interests with the clout to get

"economic land concessions" from the government for agro-industry.

At a

December 15-17 meeting in the village it was revealed that a little known

company called Meanlyheng had bulldozed the trees and jungle on 1,000 hectares

in the middle of one of the protected forests.

It is the first step in a

planned jatropha tree plantation.

Powerless to stop the machinery, the

villagers called on the environmental NGO Children Development Association (CDA)

to help.

It was also disclosed that other companies have been granted

so-called economic land concessions for jatropha and sugar cane plantations in

other parts of Oddar Meanchey community forests.

Chee Boreth, chairman

of the CDA, who helps villagers understand their legal rights regarding

management of community forests, told the Post that Meanlyheng plans to clear

1,000 hectares for jatropha trees and the company was given a land concession

within the forest area by the provincial governor.

The governor of Oddar

Meanchey province, Pech Sokhen, defended the economic land

concessions.

He told the Post on December 25 that he was more concerned

about getting private investment in the province than the forestry areas.

"If we don't allow private investment in the province the economic

situation will never change," he said.

"Community forestry was

established for a personal benefit and there was no approval of the provincial

governor. Individual villagers just set up the community forests on their own to

take control the area for their personal benefit," said

Sohken.

"Community forests contribute little benefit to the local people

when compared to private investment," he said. "I think that the company will

create more jobs, new technical skills, roads and schools for the people in

rural area."

Officials from Meanlyheng could not be reached for comment.

Bulldozers could be seen clearing trees in the far distance from a security

entrance. Guards would not allow a reporter on the site.

Located in what

was once a stronghold of Prince Norodom Ranariddh prior to 1997, the community

forests, establshed in 2004 by government sub-decree, cover some 70,000 hectares

in three districts.

The environmentally protected areas are restricted

from logging and reserved for activities that allow non-timber producers to make

a living from the forest without clearing it. Farming families are allowed 5

hectares each to plant crops and on the rest of the land they can fish, collect

fruit and vegetables and resin from rubber trees. Hunting is prohibited.

Boreth said that local villagers had plans for 70,000 hectares of

community forests within Anlong Veng, Samroang and Banteay Apil. Four thousand

families within the three districts would benefit.

"Even if the local

people cannot make 100 riel within one week, they can survive by depending on

the natural growth of a dozen species of fruit, vegetables and resin from

non-timber products," Boreth said. "Local villagers will die if they don't have

the forest."

Kheoun Mark, 45, a villager in Bank Nim village, said that

Meanlyheng workers dug canals around its claimed land and his five hectares of

farmland were seized by the company.

"Our living condition will be more

difficult after we lose the land," Mark said. "The company made a canal as a

border, and the depth of the canal would be able to kill our cows and buffalo."

Two forestry communities are being cleared. They are Ratanak Sambath

Forestry Community (RSFC) in Bak Nim village of Kon Kreal commune, which covers

20,000 hectares. Meanlyheng is clearing 1,000 hectares.

The second is

Rumdoulveasna Forestry Community (RFC) in Cheoung Phnom Meanchey near Phnom

Dangrek, covering 6,000 hectares.

In that area, according to Sek Pheoun,

chief of RFC, the village chief allows migrants from other areas to clear the

land. He said the migrants will cut the trees, and later it will be given to a

plantation business.

"I think that if we cannot stop such activities, the

protected community forests will be destroyed," he said.

A forestry

investigation officer at the NGO Forum on Cambodia who asked not to be named

said that several other local private companies also received economic land

concessions from the government between 2006 and 2007 within the

province.

"The Royal Cambodian government has the forestry law, but

everything is still done illegally in the rural areas. They use an economic land

concession mechanism in the aim of improving the country's economy," the officer

said.

He said the law prohibits concessions of more than 1,000 hectares,

but in each case bigger concessions were granted.

He said that the

provincial governor approved the land concessions for several companies totaling

more than 40,000 hectares.

Sokhen, the provincial governor confirmed that

10,000 hectares were approved by the Council of Ministers in November 2007 for

land concessions.

He identified the companies as: Tonle Sugar, Angkor

Sugar and Cane and Sugar. He said the companies represent Thai investment in

sugar cane and rubber plantations. He said that Ly Yong Phat, a CPP senator and

well-known tycoon, helped to attract the companies to the province and he will

sell electricity connected from Thailand into the province.

Meanwhile,

environmentalist Chea Cheoung, chief of RSFC, said that 26 families within the

forestry community have already lost their land and another 45 families will be

next when the company completes its border marking.

Both Choung and

Pheoun told the Post that they have been threatened with death if they try to

stop either the bulldozers or the migrants.

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