A plantation company with its sights set on a community forest long used by local ethnic minority Jarai in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district arranged a meeting with more than 200 villagers this week to try to persuade them to sign over the woodland.
Representatives of the Heng Yieb Co, flanked by local authorities, hoped Monday’s meeting would go off without a hitch, bringing along boxes of foodstuffs and jars of wine they hoped would lower tensions and ease the talks to follow.
But the best-laid plans often go awry.
The 250 villagers took their seats around the company officials as they produced about 50 boxes of instant noodles, bags of salt and three large jars of wine.
But the Heng Yieb representatives were surprised to hear the villagers’ response to their offer of “gifts”.
“The company told us that they were not bribing us, rather they were just bringing us presents and asking if it was OK for them to clear our community forest land,” said Pouy Yang, 51, an ethnic Jarai who attended the meeting.
“But we rejected it. We will not allow them to clear [our land], because it will affect us badly.”
The villagers have depended on the forest for generations, he added, and allowing the company to clear the land would lower their living conditions.
The villagers asked the company to find another site to grow rubber.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said Heng Yieb Co had been granted an economic land concession (ELC) in the province years ago, but its development so far had broken the law on ELCs and subsequent government decrees.
While the company says it was granted a 5,000-hectare concession in 2009 that encompasses the community forest, their designs on the area would seem to fall afoul of the government’s recently adopted “tiger skin policy”.
Under that policy, signed by the environment and agriculture ministries in May last year, land inhabited by farmers must be excluded from concession areas companies hope to develop.
“The community strongly disagreed with the company’s plan to clear their land and offer them ‘gifts’, so they all went home,” he said.
The company, however, denied that the food and wine were gifts or that they were asking permission to clear the land.
Company director Meas Sokunmony said the goods were for everyone to share and the meeting was held to inform the villagers of the development plans.
“They are not gifts . . . So far, I have given hundreds of cases to the soldiers already,” Sokunmony said.
Mar Vichet, O’Yadav district governor, said the land was state-owned, “but villagers want the land for the next generation”.
“I admire those villagers who dared to express their concerns and not be afraid of anyone. I will forward their request to the provincial authorities for review and discussion,” he said.