Hundreds of displaced Oddar Meanchey farmers will return to their land within a fortnight, with or without authorisation, community leader Hoy Mai said yesterday.
Thousands of people were violently evicted from their homes and farmland when the government granted economic land concessions (ELC) totalling 20,000 hectares to Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol in 2008. When Mitr Phol, amid ongoing controversy, vacated the site in March of last year, it handed the land not to its previous occupants, but the state.
Hoy Mai said yesterday that the community lodged a petition asking for their land back in February, which was then passed on to Provincial Governor Sor Thavy. Today, Mai and 200 others plan to march to Thavy’s office to request a response.
“Whether the governor allows us back or not, we will still go to our land,” Mai said. “We are scared, but we have to struggle. We experienced being evicted. So we are not afraid.”
Thavy and other provincial officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, said yesterday it was time for the land to be returned to its previous owners.
“I think the government has to work with the people, because the land now has been given back to the government, so the government has the right to return the land to the people,” Vuthy said.
Than Nhoy, one of those evicted in 2008, said he has been planting crops on the former ELC since last year, despite requests from authorities not to.
“I’ll still do it, no matter what the authorities will do, because I don’t have any land besides this,” Nhoy said. “It’s my land. I inherited it from my mother, who had it since the Lon Nol era.”
While those displaced by Mitr Phol’s plantation continue to seek resolution, civil society groups – Equitable Cambodia among them – have been voicing concern that the company has been readmitted as a member of Bonsucro, a self-described “change platform” for the sugar industry.
Mitr Phol resigned from the organisation in 2012 following a 2011 complaint over its behaviour in Oddar Meanchey. Their resignation voided the complaint against them, Bonsucro chief executive Simon Usher explained yesterday.
“We’ve been arguing that Mitr Phol has to address the problem or their membership application should have been denied,” Vuthy said.
Usher said yesterday that the organisation itself has no capacity to refuse an applicant membership, but that anyone can challenge an application in the first 30 days after it has been lodged.
“Part of the challenge we’re having here is that we didn’t reach out to and alert the people who might want to challenge it,” Usher said, adding that Bonsucro was making efforts to bring about a positive resolution to the dispute, as a result of which he said, Mitr Phol are soon to announce “additional activity” designed to redress the situation.