Empty gas stations dot the clay road that stretches 160 kilometers from the Thai
border to the sleepy town of Sre Ambel, just off Highway 4 to Phnom Penh. They
sit shuttered and deserted, but soon they will be receiving fuel-guzzling
customers in a place where many still use oxen to transport their
Two DFW officers talk to Prek Chik villagers on the disputed land alongside Road 48.
The south-west corner of Cambodia is poised to become the next
bustling freight and tourist route between Thailand and Cambodia. It has been
touted by the Greater Mekong Subregion Program as a link in the grandly-named
North-South Economic Corridor that stretches from China's Yunnan province down
to the tip of Vietnam and across to the Malay Peninsula.
south-west province of Koh Kong, more than 200 engineers and workers, on loan
from the Thai Army, scour rock and soil from the surrounding hillsides to bring
Road 48 closer to completion.
It is set to be paved by 2005, and will
cost around $170 million. The result will be one of the nation's longest and
best-conditioned thoroughfares. That's all part of the larger effort to connect
Southeast Asian countries through a network of roads mainly funded by loans from
the Asian Development Bank.
"This will become an ASEAN highway," says Ouk
Chan, undersecretary of state with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
"We will get a lot of benefits from this road."
The government may reap
the economic benefits, but local people are worried and angry. For them the road
has brought nothing but trouble.
Already the promise of riches and
development has attracted a horde of land speculators, government officials and
outsiders to land which residents insist is their traditional
Cham members of Chhouk village talk about their problems during a meeting organized by AFSC on October 12.
Compounding the issue are a brace of okhnas and environmental
NGO WildAid. They have conflicting demands for the land. That, combined with
uncertain tenure claims, mean the local people's right to live there may well be
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an international
development NGO, has organized several meetings to answer residents' questions
about the road and their land. Speaking at one on October 12, the former leader
of Prek Chik village, 58-year-old Chew Kohk, says villagers are
"We have always come to cultivate this land," he says. "We will
not leave even if they ask us to because we have struggled for such a long
At issue are two settlements: Prek Chik village in Chhikhor Krom
commune, and Chhouk village in Chhikhor Leu commune. Around 100 families live in
the two villages, which lie 30 kilometers from Sre Ambel town. Their story
stretches back decades, and their problems are bound to be repeated across
Cambodia as several other infrastructure projects get underway.
came to this part of Cambodia in 1970, the loggers who had built the first road
were replaced by soldiers. With war came suffering and hardship as the Khmer
Rouge herded villagers into overcrowded villages.
Almost three decades
later the Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty, and the loggers
returned to finish the road. It was only then, say villagers, that they felt
safe enough to reclaim farmland lost during decades of turmoil.
days only local residents and tourist buses ply the muddy ground between Sre
Ambel and the Thai border town of Koh Kong. The area they go through has become
a tangle of land titles, squabbling local officials and corrupt political
The end result is that the villagers are in serious doubt about
their fate. They have threatened violence if forced off their land. AFSC is
trying to avoid confrontation by working with the provincial authorities and the
villagers to reach an agreement.
"It seems as though the ordinary people
in the community do not know what's going on," says AFSC's country director
Patricia DeBoer. "But they have a very strong feeling that whatever is going on,
it's going against them. They've been left out of the loop in very critical
In an effort to improve communication, AFSC organized a series of
meetings between villagers, government officials and WildAid to make the
villagers' rights known.
A decision has not yet been taken on the
residents' future, but the Koh Kong provincial authorities have already set
aside land for those unable to prove title to their land. Additionally the
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is working with WildAid
to ensure suitable farmland is provided.
The governor of Koh Kong, Yuth
Phouthang, blames the dispute on activists in the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
He says the authorities are being generous in offering families forced to
relocate 160,000 baht ($3,800).
"It is not difficult to move these
villagers," says Phouthang. "We just called them to have a meeting and told them
that our government planned to build a road. They were very happy when they
But there are other complications. The land, which is
sparsely populated, connects some of the last remaining refuges of the country's
Officials from the Department of Forestry and
Wildlife (DFW) say it forms part of a critical ecological reserve and elephant
migratory corridor that connects Kirirom National Park with the Central Cardamom
Mountain wilderness. And that is where WildAid comes in: it is keen this
corridor is kept free of people to allow the elephants access to the two
And to further confuse the residents' situation, the land also
marks the border of the Dong Penh multiple use area, a protected reserve
declared in 1993 and administered by the Ministry of Environment (MoE). The
designation prevents anyone from buying, selling or building on the land without
authorization from the government.
That status means that land titles
issued since 1993 by local commune chiefs - including one to 15 residents of
Chhouk village in the middle of this year - are likely illegal. After one
commune chief was informed about the status of the land titles, he issued a
letter instructing residents to tear down any houses under construction and stop
clearing new land.
No enforcement action has been taken to move people,
says Evangeline Mercado, program coordinator for WildAid. Consultations with the
government will ultimately decide if anyone must be moved.
Miles, an advisor with WildAid, says some fences and newly-built wooden shelters
have been removed by the NGO and forestry officials. Several residents have also
promised they will not clear more land or hunt wildlife.
"We will respect
legal land titles," says Miles, who traveled to Prek Chik to meet with
villagers. "It's not people who have been living here for five years we're
concerned about - it's the people who are moving in because the road has made it
easy to access."
A report by AFSC notes that several plots in the
disputed area were settled or cultivated within the last year and a few members
of Prek Chik village admitted to having moved there recently from places such as
Koh Kong, Sre Ambel and Phnom Penh.
"We can document people working for
others who can afford to pay them to cut the forest, farm the land, then later
claim a title to the land," says Mercado.
Further complicating the issue
are two wealthy landholders, Okhna Sok Hung and Okhna Huy, who have produced
competing land titles dating back to 1992 signed by former commune chiefs. AFSC
says that a contract between the two, which was brokered by local officials,
divides much of the disputed land between them, apparently without recognizing
residents living or farming on the land at the time.
complained of harassment by military police thought to be working for the
okhnas, but claiming to represent WildAid. They said they had threatened to
bring tractors to raze the buildings and force people off the land.
local authorities are currently investigating the competing claims. The MoE says
no agreement has been reached. In the past, however, boundaries have been
redrawn to allow villagers to stay provided they agree not to cut timber
products or expand the size of their land.
"Based on what the villagers
told us, they've lived here a long time and we cannot move them," said Vay Sam
Nang, a representative with DFW on patrol with WildAid helping to enforce
"The locals, they are fine. But we need to
find out if others want to grab the land and sell it. If the village is old, has
lots of large coconut and mango trees, there's nothing we can do."
is certainly what the villagers hope will happen, but Cambodia's poor
traditionally lose out to the powerful. The local people outside Sre Ambel are
under no illusions about what they are facing.
For now they are
continuing to work on the disputed land and are harvesting this season's rice
crop. But beyond the routine of daily life they fear they will not be allowed to
"Yes, we worry," says one villager from Prek Chik. "We worry that
one day the rich people will come with a truck and move us away."
village head Chew Kohk hopes their ancestors will help.
"We believe in
the spirits," he says, "and we can pray."