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Agri-business experiment targets Phnom Penh poor

Agri-business experiment targets Phnom Penh poor

PHNOM PENH'S poor and homeless are again being touted as

ideal labor for big agri-business.

This time, the architect is one of Cambodia's richest

businessmen, Mong Reththy.

It is a simple and some say seductive argument:

cleaning-up the capital's streets of beggers and housing

them on the land to work for a living.

But critics are leery, pointing out the dangers and

documented failures of forcing out blocs of

under-privileged people without them knowing exactly what

they are expected to do, and as in the case of many such

experiments possbily to be exploited.

Every Saturday, the Mong Reththy Investment Cambodia Oil

Palm Co. Ltd. receives delegations from squatter

associations and NGOs at its 3,557 ha property in

Sihanoukville.

It has there 50 $800 houses paid for by Phnom Penh

Municipality, which wants squatters out of the capital

and two hectares of palm plantation that goes with each

house. Houses will be raffled off and more are due be

built as the palm oil project expands.

Plantation manager Pho Vuthy explains the company will

help the ex-squatters raise the palm trees during the

first crucial, and non-productive, three years.

The families begin with a $4,430 debt to Reththy for

"start-up" costs, and Reththy will recoup this

by taking 30% of the crop prices every fortnight, so the

company can pay back its estimated $6m investment. After

five years, Vuthy says the two-hectare plots could

generate $4,400 a year.

Owner Okna Mong Reththy reports: "The international

oil palm price goes up and down. But if the price is

$110, I will pay the people $100."

The international price for the palm kernels is about

$100 per ton. The international price for the oil, per

ton, fluctuates at around $600.

Reththy owns 40% of the project, the rest is held by

investors from Malaysia (30%), South Korea (20%) and

Singapore (10%).

Reththy said if people wanted to leave the estate houses,

the company would invite other families to take them

over.

Vuthy says that crops like rice, beans and corn can be

grown between the rows of oil palm to supplement family

income in the first three years.

Critics counter that this is hardly ever possible,

because the plantation uses all the soil nutrients and

have to be fed by fertilizer from the beginning.

Vuthy says that the government has been asked to build a

school and a hospital here, and some NGOs have said they

will build a pump for each house.

Sok Leakhena, Deputy Chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal

Cabinet, says that new settlers will have the option of

doing day work on the plantation, for 5000 riel, and

growing their own crops around their houses.

But they have to grow palm on their two hectares and sell

it back to the company. Their houses aren't theirs to

sell, either.

Sok Leakhena admits: "The Municipality is still not

clear how long we can provide food and other assistance

[to the settlers]. At the beginning, the Municipality

cannot avoid but to help them, but at what level I cannot

answer."

Douch Sei, coordinator of the Urban Poor Development Fund

(UPDF) says that people complain that their land would

not belong to them. They would prefer to have their own

property.

An officer for the Solidarity for Urban Poor Federation

(SUPF) was worried about the welfare of people who

decided to move to the plantation. She wants to be sure

that the company will provide for them.

"The move should be legal and according to their

will, not by force. If we let them go and are not clear

about their living conditions, they can become slaves of

the company. We work to help poor people, not make their

life more difficult." Squatters themselves have

mixed feelings.

Yim Deth, 51, a barber, has been living in a shack he

built along the Russian Embassy fence since 1993. He says

he would be happy to move if the government or a company

provided for his family. But he has to feed his family

first and if he moved he might have no job and no cash.

"I don't want to stay here but I have no choice

because I have no land and no house," he says.

"And I don't know when [the government] will push me

out of here. I need real property.

"The first thing I need is food, medical care, a

school for my kids, a pagoda, and land that I can grow

rice and vegetables. Also some people who bought houses

here will not agree to leave without receiving some

cash."

One squatter who visited the plantation, Mok Sitha, a

demobilized soldier since1992, said he was worried about

his children because they were studying. A move to the

countryside would cut them off from a proper education.

His children also had no experience in farming because

they were born in Phnom Penh.

"For city people to live on a farm is very

difficult," he said.

He said that only 40% of his community would consider

moving to the plantation since they already had jobs moto

drivers, car and radio mechanics, garment factory

workers. In the countryside, their skills would be

useless.

Sok Samy, 50, who lives on the edge of the road in front

of the ruined Tonle Bassac Theater, said she was eager to

go to the plantation because she had no job, but she had

not yet received information from SUPF.

"If I'm living here, I cannot find happiness for my

kids because I have no real house. I do know how to farm,

so I will go and live there [at the plantation] if they

tell us how to go."

Another worry for many is malaria. The plantation is

surrounded by mountains, believed to be the haunt of Yay

Mao (the grandmother Mao spirit) who inflicts

"Neakta" malaria.

But plantation manager Vuthy scoffs: "I've been

living here for years and have never gotten

malaria."

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