Around 150 villagers in northwestern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province have blocked a Chinese concession holder from clearing land they say was reserved for grazing their cattle, an official from a nongovernmental organization and a local commune chief said Wednesday.
The standoff came as a local rights group slammed a policy launched by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for failing to deliver suitable land to the country’s poor and international donors for calling the policy a success.
The 150 indigenous ethnic Kouy and majority Khmer villagers on Tuesday confronted two bulldozers dispatched by Chinese developer Rui Feng to clear their land in Chhaeb district’s Mlou Prey Phi commune, according to Bek Sophean, an official from the Preah Vihear-based NGO Ponlok Khmer.
When workers refused to stop, the villagers surrounded their vehicles and forced them to leave, he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that Rui Feng had no right to land officially designated for cattle grazing in the commune’s two villages.
“The company has encroached on the villagers’ land, which the government has reserved for them,” he said.
Commune chief Sab Say told RFA that as many as 200 villagers stood to lose land if the government does not step in to protect them from the developer, which has been granted 8,840 hectares (21,850 acres) in Preah Vihear by the Ministry of Agriculture for agro-development.
“The villagers are concerned that we won’t have grassland to feed our cattle,” he told RFA.
“This company is abusing the people and claims the fields do not belong to the villagers.”
Rui Feng, which has been accused of attempting to measure off 16 hectares (40 acres) of land in Mlou Prey Phi commune, is no stranger to controversy in Preah Vihear.
In May, ethnic Kuoy villagers in Tbeng Meanchey district’s Brame commune held a ceremony to curse Rui Feng and another Chinese firm, Lan Feng, calling for the company directors to be struck by lightning, bitten by cobras and eaten by tigers for grabbing their land, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
The villagers said they decided to hold the ceremony after having nearly exhausted their avenues for justice through Cambodia’s court system and because the companies were “colluding with [local] officials.” Following the ceremony, they successfully blocked a bulldozer from clearing their land.
The dispute with Rui Feng and Lan Feng began in 2012 when the firms were granted two land concessions totaling nearly 18,000 hectares (44,480 acres), and villagers have blocked the developers from clearing what they claim is their land on several occasions since then.
On Wednesday, local rights group Licadho released a report saying that Cambodia’s Social Land Concessions (SLC) policy to transfer land to the country’s landless and poor had done little to benefit those groups since its launch in 2003.
The group said its recent investigation into the U.S. $13 million SLC Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development (LASED) project showed it had been ineffective in assisting rural poor Cambodians, despite claims by donors the World Bank and German development agency GIZ that it was a success.
“We found not only is the government’s lack of will to provide suitable land for poor Cambodians obvious but it appears that the donors have been more than willing to embellish results, claiming the project as a successful model for future replication” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in a statement accompanying the release of the report “On Stony Ground, A Look into Social Land Concessions.”
The LASED project was launched in 2008 to prove that SLCs could contribute to reducing rural poverty by transferring land to 3,000 landless Cambodian families for residential and farming purposes.
The World Bank has reported that the project exceeded planned targets, while GIZ has described it as a “cost-efficient replicable model guaranteeing significant positive impact on rural livelihoods.”
However, Licadho estimated that less than 50 percent of the families that received residential land in the LASED SLC sites had remained at those sites at the time of its visits, while half of the SLC sites were not yet functional and will need “substantial financial and technical support to be minimally sustainable.”
“Numerous villagers reported limited ability to use the allocated agricultural plots and had gained no significant improvement in terms of food security,” Licadho said, adding that the land allocated by Cambodian authorities appeared to be “simply not suitable for agricultural purposes.”
No land titles have been awarded by the Cambodian government to SLC recipients who have met legal requirements, the group said, while many more families may lose their property rights as poor implementation of the project effectively forces them to violate the requirements needed to apply for a title.
“Fundamental problems undermining the project, particularly the Cambodian government’s lack of political will, must be addressed for these SLCs to have any chance of success and sustainability,” Pilorge said.
“Addressing these problems must begin with acknowledging them, otherwise the [World Bank and GIZ] risk re-enforcing the government’s bad behavior.”
Licadho noted that the World Bank announced last year that it may grant a U.S. $25 million loan to continue funding 15 SLC sites—including the eight LASED sites—in addition to a food security follow-up project already initiated by GIZ, and urged donors to refrain from funding additional SLC projects before the system was fixed.
In response to the report, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said SLCs are reserved for supporting population growth and that the government provides the sites with services such as water, electricity, roads, schools and hospitals.
He also blamed farmers for failing to adopt modern equipment for rice cultivation, leading to low yields.
“Villagers don’t even plant vegetables for daily consumption … They are facing problems, but we will continue to assist them in their struggles,” Phay Siphan said.
He also claimed that at least 3,000 villagers in Kampong Thom and Kratie provinces had received land titles from the government.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
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