A village set up in the 1960s by King Norodom Sihanouk as a buffer against border
incursions by Laos looks set to be overrun by a Cambodian plantation company.
The 400 families of O'Svay village in the northern province of Stung Treng have spent
the past two years fighting unsuccessfully against a plantation contract. They are
livid that the 70-year deal for the cassava plantation will strip them of their fields
and the local forest on which they rely.
In the past two years they have written to provincial authorities, the National Assembly,
the Senate, and even the King requesting the matter be resolved, but to no avail.
In late May the villagers decided on a non-violent demonstration to protest the company's
actions, which they said included destroying their rice fields which ended up inside
the concession, and clearing the local forest.
"They blocked us from entering our rice fields to grow rice," said 53-year-old
Pin Bunchay, a demobilized soldier who went home to help his elderly parents. His
father was a paratrooper in the 1960s. "We cannot even take our cows or buffaloes
into the field to plow."
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries awarded 7,400 hectares of forest
to the Cassava Plantation Company on September 13, 1999. The contract gave the company
the right to plant mai sak trees and cashews for 70 years. To the villagers' utmost
surprise, their 50 hectares of O'Svay commune land fell inside the concession.
The contract, villagers said, had reclassified their land as belonging to Sammaki
commune, Stung Treng district. They maintain they live in O'Svay commune, Thalaboriwat
"It was strange," said villager Kong Vuthy. "This land was recognized
as ours since the early 1960s by King Norodom Sihanouk, when he helped to develop
our village here."
At the time the village was called Borei O'Svay. It is on the Mekong adjacent to
the Laos-Cambodian border, and was established by the King to protect the area from
border encroachment. The King gave each family five hectares of land to grow crops
and support themselves.
One villager, 45-year-old Em Sarim, said non-timber forest products such as wild
fruits, mushrooms and vines formed an important component of villagers' incomes.
One fruit called sleng, which is used as a medicine, generated around 400,000 riel
per year for the village.
"The rice we grow can only feed us for at most five months," said Sarim.
"Most of the year we rely on these non-timber forest products. Please help us
get our land back, as the people here are very poor now."
Provincial officials told the Post it was up to the government to solve the problem.
Deputy governor Kong Sambath said he would report the villagers' concerns to the
government. Villagers said officials had made similar promises many times but had
not kept them.
"We don't want anything from the government. We just need our rice pot back,"
said villager Bunchay. "We are thinking of the next generation: How can they
feed themselves if this forest is destroyed?"