Deep in the forest of Preah Vihear’s Tbeng Meanchey district, the unusual sight of hammocks and blue tarpaulins can be seen hanging between the trees.
Forest that only a few years ago was devoid of all but those collecting food from it has transformed this month into a tent city as 493 ethnic Kuoy families have moved in to protect their community forest from being logged for development.
Abandoning their homes in all three villages of Brame commune 20 kilometres away, families have taken up full-time watch in the forest, which was reclassified as economic land concessions in 2011 and granted to five Chinese companies – each of which share the same address and phone number – to develop as sugarcane plantations.
“If we don’t protect this forest, the next generation will scorn us, saying we are responsible for them losing their traditions,” villager Khim Kol told the Post during a recent visit. “All ethnic minority groups have to keep protecting land until authorities measure communal land titles for us.”
Enduring the recent cold spell inside a small straw shelter he has erected in the forest, Kol, 52, said he and his family will stay put until they get a result.
“We are willing to live in the cold for now – if we lose our forest, it will be forever and will make our lives hard,” he said.
Nearby, villager Prak Chang grilled his lunch – four freshly caught rats – against an expansive backdrop already cleared in readiness for sugarcane.
Surrounding Chang were thousands of logs that had been felled by teams of lumbermen who have since deserted the area.
“Since we came to sleep here, the Chinese workers have taken away their machinery, but if we go home, they will come back to keep clearing the forest,” he said. “If the tents don’t stay here, they will fell all the trees.”
The concessions to the five companies were granted in August 2011. Despite Minister of Rural Development Chea Sophara acknowledging in a letter to the Kuoy community a year later that the area was their community forest, they remain without titles.
Cambodia’s land law of 2001 has provisions for communal titles – important to a number of ethnic minorities – but they remain a rarity.
Furthermore, some of the damage in the forest surrounding these villagers is already done. According to Chang, four temples that villagers worship in have already been seized. And a lake has been filled in. Negotiations between authorities and the villagers continue – but clearing has been going on since April 2012, Chang said.
“There are never solutions to the negotiations. As we talk, they secretly clear the forest. The more they clear, the more people decide to stay here to protect the forest.”
Families camping out say their livelihoods depend solely on what they can extract from the forest. They spend their days collecting resin and picking fruit and vegetables. When they can, they fish and hunt small animals.
“Now we don’t know where the animals have gone,” Chang said.
Chhey Chheak, 43, told the Post she was concerned that families fear they will lose the “rotating farms” they plant in different parts of the forest each year.
“They don’t like to consult with the people, even for a minute,” she said. “They look down on us.
“If we suddenly lose our farms … my children will have to drop out of school, because I won’t have the money to support them.”
Before the ELCs were granted in 2011, Chheak said, villagers who had been in the area since the fall of the Khmer Rouge had individual land titles.
She claims that then-commune chief Thuon Nhem called people to his office to renew them, only to tear them up, claiming they had become invalid.
Contacted yesterday, Nhem denied this claim. “This is just an accusation,” he said. “I did nothing like that.”
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the five companies awarded ELCs in the area – Lang Feng, Rui Feng, Heng Yue, Heng Rui and Heng Nong – are effectively the same company.
“The addresses and contact numbers they have provided to the Forestry Administration are all the same,” he said.
The Post has seen documents showing this to be the case.
Xie Kanqing, listed as the director of Lang Feng, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Soveth said villagers camping in the forest were taking matters into their own hands only because they have received no help from the authorities.
“It is the first time during a land dispute that villagers have left their homes to live in the jungle to resist what the developers are doing,” he said. “If the government does not take action, it will happen across the country.”
While the deputy provincial governor, Kan Vuthy, said yesterday that authorities “did not know how to settle” the matter, Nhem – who is now the second commune councillor – says that villagers are still holding out some hope of a positive outcome.
“If they want collective land, they should tell us how much and we will measure it for them,” he said.
“But they demand we drive the companies out. How can we do that?”