Five civil society organisations urged the government to take action against Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), a Vietnamese agribusiness firm, for alleged land clearing activities on areas allocated to indigenous communities in Ratanakkiri province’s Andong Meas district.
However, provincial authorities denied the accusation, saying the local community welcomed the money that had poured into the area due to the presence of HAGL.
The Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, Equitable Cambodia, Highlanders Association, Inclusive Development International and Indigenous Rights Action Movement issued a joint press release on December 23. They asked the government to protect the Muoy village and Inn village indigenous cultures by stopping HAGL from further land clearing.
The group claimed that HAGL is clearing land allocated to the Muoy Village community to fill two nearby watercourses – Ansang Creek and Rok Creek -- in the Patu Mountain area.
In a related controversy, the Inn village community is concerned about fencing erected by HAGL around wetlands or creeks where villagers gather natural wild greens.
The civil society organisations said that HAGL’s activity violates an instruction from the Ratanakkiri Provincial Administration, which ordered the return of the Patu Mountain area to the Muoy village community.
Equitable Cambodia executive director Eang Vuthy said the issue between HAGL and the local community is not a new conflict, but now the land clearing had spread to additional areas.
The area in question had been a part of discussions by a joint committee made up of representatives from the provincial administration, HAGL and indigenous communities, he said.
Vuthy added that a consensus was reached and forwarded to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for an official decision.
“In this case, the indigenous people demanded [HAGL] return the land they use as worship [locations]. The local communities raised this issue because the company has recently dug into a mountain and then filled in a canal that they use as a water catchment,” he said.
According to the joint press release, the areas concerned are part of the 742.6ha of land, containing 64 separate areas of high cultural importance, which had been designated for return to 12 local indigenous communities, as instructed by the Ratanakkiri provincial governor Thong Savon.
Sev Suen, Kachak indigenous community representative from Kak village in Andong Meas district’s Talav commune, said that in this area some people are growing rice and some are also growing cashews and cassava.
He said clearing streams or canals is not a problem in the dry season but the activity can flood their field during the rainy season, even though HAGL had promised to open the waterway during this period.
“We don’t want the company to clear the land or do anything,” he said.
Provincial administration director and spokesman Moeng Sinath fired back at the accusations.
“The canal is just a small stream, not a big waterway that they rely upon as a water catchment. Some civil society organisations are causing trouble by inflating the issues,” he said.
According to Sinath, the relevant parties have met to discuss the land dispute between HAGL, the indigenous community and the provincial administration.
“After we [conducted our] research, we found that there was no one residing in the location [that was part of the complaint against HAGL regarding land clearing].
HAGL representative in Ratanakkiri province, Thach Habin, denied that the canal had been filled.
“We have not grabbed any land from the indigenous peoples, but they have actually encroached on the company’s land. However, we believe the issue has now been resolved,” he said.