Ethnic minority community says a giant rubber conglomerate is destroying its traditional culture, as plantation officials insist that the company is bringing much-needed work to the area.
Ethnic Phnong houses sit on recently cleared rubber plantation land in Mondulkiri's Bou Sra commune.
FIVE months after an angry mob smashed and burned machinery belonging to a local rubber company in Mondulkiri province's Bou Sra village, ethnic minority residents in the area say their culture and livelihoods remain in danger from new plantations that have displaced them from their ancestral farmlands.
"They've lost hope," said Bill Herod, an adviser for Village Focus Cambodia who works with Phnong youth in the provincial capital Sen Monorom.
"We in the West talk negatively about slash-and-burn, but this is slash-and-burn by the company."
According to an article in Science, the expansion of rubber plantations in Southeast Asia could double or triple by 2050, doing far more damage than traditional farming methods.
And while the Bou Sra plantation owners say they seek to balance their interests with those of the local communities, residents and advocates say the situation is symptomatic of the unrestrained development that is harming other indigenous populations.
Residents in Mondulkiri say more than 800 families in seven villages - the majority of them from the Phnong ethnic minority - have had plots of land taken by the rubber plantation, claiming there was no consultation prior to the granting of the concessions.
"They just came and took my land," said Umbarup Sherup, a Bou Sra village resident who said he received no compensation from the company.
When we came to meet the company [they] said they would take the land whether we agreed to it or not.
Another resident, who declined to be named, said the villagers were not given a choice.
"When we came to meet the company, [they] said they would take the land whether we agreed to it or not," the resident said. "Now we have nothing."
In late 2007, government authorities granted 2,500 hectares in economic land concessions to a joint venture between the local Khaou Chuly Group and the French rubber conglomerate Socfin.
In early April, Khaou Chuly Group President Khaou Phallaboth signed an agreement with Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun granting his company a further 2,705 hectares in the area.
"We hope to receive a total economic land concession of over 20,000 hectares from the government by 2010 to grow rubber trees," Khaou Phallaboth told the Post at the time.
After clearing began last year, village representatives travelled to Phnom Penh in June to deliver a personal plea to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The dispute came to a head in December, when a frustrated group of villagers destroyed machinery belonging to Khaou Chuly Group.
"No one is happy with them. They do whatever they want, and they don't care about the people," said one Phnong community representative, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals. "In the future, the Phnong people will die out because we have no forests."
Chith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said an investigation by his organisation found that the rubber project had led to the loss of traditional agricultural land, water supplies and spirit forests, and had impeded access to schooling for some village children.
"Socfin or Khaou Chuly [should] focus strongly on consultation with the community regarding environmental impacts and impacts on their livelihoods ... and find a solution with the community before they start their project implementation," he said by email.
When contacted by the Post, Kao Phallaboth declined to comment in detail, saying day-to-day management was in the hands of Socfin officials.
Reversing the damage
Socfin sources say that following the burning of the tractors, managerial control was assumed by their company, which says it has adopted a more conciliatory approach.
Socfin General Manager Philippe Monnin said the company was doing all it can to help the community and offset the impact of the plantations.
At Socfin's invitation, Monnin said Medicins du Monde, a French NGO, had helped construct a local hospital, and that the company hoped to bring in the French governmental development agency AFD to revitalise the community.
"Our plan is to get NGOs to work with us to take care of the community and ensure what we are doing is a model," Monnin said during an interview in Bou Sra village. "We want to do something proper, but it will not be easy."
He said that of the 10,000 hectares planned for the rubber plantation, 3,000 hectares would remain as spirit forests for the Phnong. He also added that Socfin was now conducting an environmental and social impact assessment of the plantation as part of its master plan, as well as sending an ethnologist and sociologist to study the situation.
He said the plantation would provide regular employment for Phnong. From May until August, he said, the company would double its daily manpower to 1,000 workers, who would earn 20,000 riels ($5) per day on the plantation.
Mondulkiri Deputy Governor Yim Lux told the Post that Socfin was paying US$15,000 a month in wages for local workers, and said it was providing "fair" compensation to the villagers affected by the plantation.
"The company agreed to compensate the people whose farmland was impacted, either with a plot of land or with cash," he said, but added that negotiations were still in progress.
Monnin said that Socfin, as a French company that needs to maintain a positive global image, was more vulnerable to criticism than other rubber companies in Cambodia.
"It [development] is inevitable.... If we were not here, it would be the Vietnamese, and then for the Phnong it would be the end," he said.
But many of the Phnong villagers said the Vietnamese state-owned Daklak Rubber Co, which has a plot adjacent to Socfin, has treated the Phnong more equitably.
"If people disagree with the Vietnamese company, they don't destroy the land. When the Vietnamese company does [harvest] the land, they give half [the profits] to us," one villager said.
Officials at Daklak's Mondulkiri headquarters declined to comment in detail about their rubber operations.
Too little too late
Critics of Socfin say the company's actions come too late and that irreparable damage has been done.
"Mistakes have been made by all key partners involved, including the Cambodian government and the company. ... Forest was destroyed, a Phnong graveyard was bulldozed, and [these] can't be undone," Herod said.
According to Cambodian environmental law, Herod said, an impact study should have been completed before the concession was awarded. He also noted an increase in drunkenness and other disorders related to social disintegration among the underemployed Phnong.
But despite indigenous land protections existing under the country's 2001 Land Law, villagers insist the Phnong community was not consulted.
While there is intermittent work on the plantations, the Phnong representative said the loss of rotational farmland forests meant that local communities faced an uncertain future.
"Now that the company has come here, they are very strict and will not allow the Phnong to cut wood on company land," she said. "Before they had the freedom to cut the forests and grow crops. Now they say the land is French; the sky is French."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH