More than 200 people from five villages in Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces on Monday burned two rubber company guard posts to the ground in protest of the planned clearing of at least 1,000 hectares of disputed farmland and forests.
In 2012, the government granted a 70-year, 6,000-hectare economic land concession (ELC) spanning both provinces inside the Kulen Prom-Tep Wildlife Sanctuary to Ly Chhuong Construction and Import Export (later renamed Green Rubber).
Following protests from villagers, who claimed they had lived on the land since 1998, the government excised 473 hectares from the concession in 2014. However, other villagers have continued to contest parts of the concession. In total, 2,000 hectares remain in dispute.
Pang Yiet, Kulen’s district governor, said that authorities and company representatives met residents of five villages on Monday, telling them that the company this year planned to clear 1,000 hectares, including land on which some of their farms were located.
The villagers reacted by setting fire to two of Green Rubber’s outposts in the ELC, he said.“We told them in the morning and they burned things down in the afternoon; they did not listen to us,” the governor said yesterday.
The people had been telling the company to stop clearing the land until the dispute could be resolved but the company refused, according to some involved in the protest.
“No one helped us to solve the problem,” said one of the protesters who identified herself as “Sopheap”. “The villagers got furious and decided to burn those things down to warn the company.”
A study in the Asia Journal of Social Science last month found that people fighting ELCs in Cambodia were more likely to get results by protesting with violence.
The paper found that both the government and companies involved offered concessions and minimal judicial reprisal in response to indigenous groups destroying their equipment.
Heng Pov, another one of the protesters, said Green Rubber prevented locals from going to their rice fields or getting water from a pond inside the ELC.
The company installed many outposts and the villagers had to ask permission to go inside, he said.
Company representative Pun Sothea yesterday denied the firm had cleared any land affecting the villagers.
He said the company had actually built roads for them and that security guards had only stopped people to avoid damage to company property.
Last year, villagers from the same area also torched four guard posts and two map billboards belonging to Green Rubber.
The company is in the process of suing five villagers for arson. District Governor Yiet said the authorities were looking for the perpetrators of the latest burning.
Separately, a community in Preah Vihear’s Kulen district is putting together a court complaint against the Koumoly Company, a contractor accused of logging illegally.
Koumoly received a licence to collect timber products inside Cambodia Blue Heaven’s ELC, but community members said that Koumoly employees had been logging trees in the Kulen Prom-Tep Wildlife Sanctuary.
Community members detained several employees driving two trucks loaded with timber on Sunday. “The trucks and trees are with the community, but the two drivers were allowed to return to the company,” said community member Nuon Skun.
Keo Vanny, a representative with Cambodia Blue Heaven, acknowledged that the two trucks belonged to Koumoly but refused to discuss any other details.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, which helps the Ministry of Environment patrol the area, said that the government had received regular reports of Cambodia Blue Heaven going beyond the boundaries of its concession agreement over the past few months.
A source in the provincial government said that it was hard for the Ministry of Environment to act because high-level officials were involved in the illegal activities.
Cambodia Blue Heaven was found to be in violation of its development plan in 2015. Normally, that would be enough to cancel the ELC, but it was given a year to remedy its actions, said the source.