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'Please help us get our land back' - border villagers' plea

'Please help us get our land back' - border villagers' plea

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

district.

"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?"

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