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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers set to lose in development drive

Villagers set to lose in development drive

Empty gas stations dot the clay road that stretches 160 kilometers from the Thai

border to the sleepy town of Sre Ambel, just off Highway 4 to Phnom Penh. They

sit shuttered and deserted, but soon they will be receiving fuel-guzzling

customers in a place where many still use oxen to transport their


Two DFW officers talk to Prek Chik villagers on the disputed land alongside Road 48.

The south-west corner of Cambodia is poised to become the next

bustling freight and tourist route between Thailand and Cambodia. It has been

touted by the Greater Mekong Subregion Program as a link in the grandly-named

North-South Economic Corridor that stretches from China's Yunnan province down

to the tip of Vietnam and across to the Malay Peninsula.

In the

south-west province of Koh Kong, more than 200 engineers and workers, on loan

from the Thai Army, scour rock and soil from the surrounding hillsides to bring

Road 48 closer to completion.

It is set to be paved by 2005, and will

cost around $170 million. The result will be one of the nation's longest and

best-conditioned thoroughfares. That's all part of the larger effort to connect

Southeast Asian countries through a network of roads mainly funded by loans from

the Asian Development Bank.

"This will become an ASEAN highway," says Ouk

Chan, undersecretary of state with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

"We will get a lot of benefits from this road."

The government may reap

the economic benefits, but local people are worried and angry. For them the road

has brought nothing but trouble.

Already the promise of riches and

development has attracted a horde of land speculators, government officials and

outsiders to land which residents insist is their traditional


Cham members of Chhouk village talk about their problems during a meeting organized by AFSC on October 12.

Compounding the issue are a brace of okhnas and environmental

NGO WildAid. They have conflicting demands for the land. That, combined with

uncertain tenure claims, mean the local people's right to live there may well be


The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an international

development NGO, has organized several meetings to answer residents' questions

about the road and their land. Speaking at one on October 12, the former leader

of Prek Chik village, 58-year-old Chew Kohk, says villagers are


"We have always come to cultivate this land," he says. "We will

not leave even if they ask us to because we have struggled for such a long


At issue are two settlements: Prek Chik village in Chhikhor Krom

commune, and Chhouk village in Chhikhor Leu commune. Around 100 families live in

the two villages, which lie 30 kilometers from Sre Ambel town. Their story

stretches back decades, and their problems are bound to be repeated across

Cambodia as several other infrastructure projects get underway.

When war

came to this part of Cambodia in 1970, the loggers who had built the first road

were replaced by soldiers. With war came suffering and hardship as the Khmer

Rouge herded villagers into overcrowded villages.

Almost three decades

later the Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty, and the loggers

returned to finish the road. It was only then, say villagers, that they felt

safe enough to reclaim farmland lost during decades of turmoil.


days only local residents and tourist buses ply the muddy ground between Sre

Ambel and the Thai border town of Koh Kong. The area they go through has become

a tangle of land titles, squabbling local officials and corrupt political


The end result is that the villagers are in serious doubt about

their fate. They have threatened violence if forced off their land. AFSC is

trying to avoid confrontation by working with the provincial authorities and the

villagers to reach an agreement.

"It seems as though the ordinary people

in the community do not know what's going on," says AFSC's country director

Patricia DeBoer. "But they have a very strong feeling that whatever is going on,

it's going against them. They've been left out of the loop in very critical


In an effort to improve communication, AFSC organized a series of

meetings between villagers, government officials and WildAid to make the

villagers' rights known.

A decision has not yet been taken on the

residents' future, but the Koh Kong provincial authorities have already set

aside land for those unable to prove title to their land. Additionally the

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is working with WildAid

to ensure suitable farmland is provided.

The governor of Koh Kong, Yuth

Phouthang, blames the dispute on activists in the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

He says the authorities are being generous in offering families forced to

relocate 160,000 baht ($3,800).

"It is not difficult to move these

villagers," says Phouthang. "We just called them to have a meeting and told them

that our government planned to build a road. They were very happy when they

heard that."

But there are other complications. The land, which is

sparsely populated, connects some of the last remaining refuges of the country's

dwindling wildlife.

Officials from the Department of Forestry and

Wildlife (DFW) say it forms part of a critical ecological reserve and elephant

migratory corridor that connects Kirirom National Park with the Central Cardamom

Mountain wilderness. And that is where WildAid comes in: it is keen this

corridor is kept free of people to allow the elephants access to the two


And to further confuse the residents' situation, the land also

marks the border of the Dong Penh multiple use area, a protected reserve

declared in 1993 and administered by the Ministry of Environment (MoE). The

designation prevents anyone from buying, selling or building on the land without

authorization from the government.

That status means that land titles

issued since 1993 by local commune chiefs - including one to 15 residents of

Chhouk village in the middle of this year - are likely illegal. After one

commune chief was informed about the status of the land titles, he issued a

letter instructing residents to tear down any houses under construction and stop

clearing new land.

No enforcement action has been taken to move people,

says Evangeline Mercado, program coordinator for WildAid. Consultations with the

government will ultimately decide if anyone must be moved.

However Paul

Miles, an advisor with WildAid, says some fences and newly-built wooden shelters

have been removed by the NGO and forestry officials. Several residents have also

promised they will not clear more land or hunt wildlife.

"We will respect

legal land titles," says Miles, who traveled to Prek Chik to meet with

villagers. "It's not people who have been living here for five years we're

concerned about - it's the people who are moving in because the road has made it

easy to access."

A report by AFSC notes that several plots in the

disputed area were settled or cultivated within the last year and a few members

of Prek Chik village admitted to having moved there recently from places such as

Koh Kong, Sre Ambel and Phnom Penh.

"We can document people working for

others who can afford to pay them to cut the forest, farm the land, then later

claim a title to the land," says Mercado.

Further complicating the issue

are two wealthy landholders, Okhna Sok Hung and Okhna Huy, who have produced

competing land titles dating back to 1992 signed by former commune chiefs. AFSC

says that a contract between the two, which was brokered by local officials,

divides much of the disputed land between them, apparently without recognizing

residents living or farming on the land at the time.

Residents have

complained of harassment by military police thought to be working for the

okhnas, but claiming to represent WildAid. They said they had threatened to

bring tractors to raze the buildings and force people off the land.


local authorities are currently investigating the competing claims. The MoE says

no agreement has been reached. In the past, however, boundaries have been

redrawn to allow villagers to stay provided they agree not to cut timber

products or expand the size of their land.

"Based on what the villagers

told us, they've lived here a long time and we cannot move them," said Vay Sam

Nang, a representative with DFW on patrol with WildAid helping to enforce

anti-encroachment efforts.

"The locals, they are fine. But we need to

find out if others want to grab the land and sell it. If the village is old, has

lots of large coconut and mango trees, there's nothing we can do."


is certainly what the villagers hope will happen, but Cambodia's poor

traditionally lose out to the powerful. The local people outside Sre Ambel are

under no illusions about what they are facing.

For now they are

continuing to work on the disputed land and are harvesting this season's rice

crop. But beyond the routine of daily life they fear they will not be allowed to


"Yes, we worry," says one villager from Prek Chik. "We worry that

one day the rich people will come with a truck and move us away."


village head Chew Kohk hopes their ancestors will help.

"We believe in

the spirits," he says, "and we can pray."



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