Author: Chairat Jirojmontree
A villager pointed to the empty field before us and explained that it belongs to KSL or Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Group. The Thai company owns vast amount of land covering not only what we could see in front of us but extended toward and beyond those hills on the horizon. Although sugarcane plantation had stopped for about a year now.
This is Sre Ambel district in Koh Kong province of Cambodia, bordering Trad province of Thailand. Since 2006, the Thai company has invested over 2,000 million Thai Baht here on its sugar industry. It had acquired a 90-year concession from the Cambodian government over 20,000 hectares of land.
Back in 2006, local communities were forced-evicted from their land without any prior warning. The government had seized over 5,000 hectares of residential and agricultural land which belongs to 456 families in 3 villages and give the land to the Thai sugar company. Without prior informed consent, no one complied hence violence ensued. Bulldozers razed houses and farmlands, polices attacked villagers, a villager was later assassinated by firearm.
The Cambodian government and the Thai company claimed that they were clearing the area to develop degraded and deserted land. Locals argued that their communities have settled there for a long time, the land was fertile and they were living and farming off the land. But the situation intensified and villagers decided to walk on foot to Phnom Penh, the capital city, to demand communities’ land rights. The conflict prolonged and was extensively covered in the news for months. Eventually villagers filed a legal complaint to Koh Kong Provincial Court. They also filed complaints to relevant Cambodian government agencies. Unfortunately, it seems their voices are not heard; they were left with no negotiating power.
Subsequently in 2010, a group of NGOs filed a complaint before the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) and requested for an investigation. The Thai NHRC consequently resolved that KSL’s actions had resulted in human rights violations against the Cambodian villagers. Ultimately, the Commission submitted a set of recommendations to the sugar company which include recommendations to return the land to the villagers, to pay for compensation and remedy, and to rehabilitate the environment and ensure that villagers can return to and make use of the land as before.
‘Teng Kao’, a villager from Chhouk village, is in a group of 200 families who submitted their demands to the company (villagers in the 3 affected villages are divided into 3 groups to submit differing sets of demands). He said that, in total, 1,375 hectares of land were seized from the people [in his group] but the company had offered to return just 300 hectares, merely 1.5 hectares per family, and to pay only 60,000 Thai Baht in compensation. Therefore villagers decided not to take the offer because it does not worth the loss of land that everyone had put their efforts to pioneer as well as the abundance of natural resources which were destroyed by the sugarcane plantation.
“In the beginning, Chikhor was the first village that we built. Later on we expanded into 3 villages. Most of the area were lowland and thick forest. Villagers cultivated rice and foraged for food in the forest. Fortunately, during the 3 years and 8 months that the Khmer Rouge was in power, people here were not sent to forced labor camps. So we were developing the land for agricultural activities. When the Khmer Rouge regime ended, the government announced that those who had been working/cultivating on a land for over 4 years will have the rights to cultivate the land, albeit not land ownership. So when the government came to seize the land from the villagers, we presented documents proving our rights to cultivate. In response, the government said that we were using the government’s land; now that the government wants to use it, we have to return the land to them.” Teng Kao told the story.
Teng Kao lamented that after their land were expropriated, villagers have been living in severe hardship. There was no income. Children had to stop going to school, following their parents to protest in Phnom Penh. Some families have no choice but to take up labour jobs in the sugarcane plantation, doing labor works on their own land to earn just 70 Baht a day because they need the money for food and also to participate in the fight for their rights.
“Some of our agricultural lands which are not in the concession area are also affected. We can’t cultivate as effectively as before because many streams were destroyed by the sugarcane plantation. Chemicals contaminated the remaining waterways and ponds. Fish died, ducks that went into the water to eat fish died. No one dare to use the water or eat the fish. Some of us can’t answer our children when they ask why they have to stop going to school. We have to take loans, borrow rice to eat. We are in utter despair because the land that we have worked for our whole life were taken away and there is almost no hope of getting it back.” — Teng Kao.
Even though their demand for the land to be returned hasn’t materialized, the fight for rights of these villagers is one of the main reasons the European Union is considering to withdraw Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market under its Everything But Arms (EBA) — a trade scheme designed to help Least Developed Countries (LDCs) get out of poverty by granting duty-free and quota-free access to the EU for any exports other than arms and armaments. If the situation of human rights violations in Cambodia has not improved and the EU decide to withdraw the special tariffs treatment, Cambodian economy will suffer significantly since the EU is Cambodia’s largest export market. Decision of the EU is expected by the end of March *.
Meanwhile, operation of KSL sugar factories in Cambodia is temporarily suspended until further notice because major buyers from Europe had discontinued buying sugar from Cambodia. Therefore, the tens of thousands hectares of land is currently deserted, unused.
For Taing Mouy, a villager from Chikhor village, she feels many villagers understand the situation that there is no chance to get back all the land they had lost. So they negotiated with the company to return 5 hectares per family with 124,000 Baht compensation. With this, they can at least securely resettle and set up new farms. At minimum, they should have land for their children to live off in the future.
Premrudee Daoroung, Director of Project for Southeast Asia Dialogues, recounted the genesis of problems from the sugar industry in Sre Ambel. The Cambodian government attempts to attract foreign investments by granting long-term land concessions for various economic activities. This has intensified land conflicts due to largely unsettled disputes on land rights and land ownership between private investors, local communities, and the government itself. Particularly, the area which was granted to the sugar industry in Sre Ambel was originally settlements of local communities who, despite having lived there since before the Khmer Rough era, had not been granted land ownerships. In consequence, major land-grab conflicts have ensued while both the Cambodian government and the Thai company are denying responsibility.
Premrudee further explained that land grab problems happened in Thailand in the past when private investors seized land from local communities in unfair or unlawful manners. But because Thailand has developed its legal system and improved regulations to protect land rights, when many countries in the Mekong region opened their economy for foreign investment, these private investors now flood the less developed countries who have no sufficient regulations or mechanisms to protect community’s rights. Thai investors are among major foreign investors in Cambodia who are exploiting natural resources while enjoying benefits from tax exemptions under the EU’s EBA trade scheme. When conflicts occur and there are land rights violations against local people, at the very least these Thai companies should adhere to the same accountability standards as they are in Thailand — not exploiting loopholes and solely aiming for profits.
On the other hand, she pointed out that while the sugar industry in Cambodia is being criticized for its human rights and land rights violations, Thai investments in the business have slowed down. At the same time, investments from China is growing. Chinese capitals have become the biggest sugar producer [in Cambodia] and they don’t have to rely on export to the EU because demand from the Chinese market is growing. Ultimately, the prospect of land conflicts and human rights violations is still worrisome.
Despite the halt in sugar factories’ operation and constant rumors that Thai capitals are preparing to withdraw their investment, locals have obtained information that Ly Yong Phat, a big businessman in Koh Kong who is also a confidant of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is preparing to collaborate with Chinese investors to take over Sre Ambel sugar industry. This is indeed a grave news for villagers because it could mean no hope of getting back their land. It is also an emphasis that the sweetness of the sugar industry’s profits will impose perpetual bitter wounds on local communities in the foreseeable future.
This report was supported by Earth Journalism Network, Thai Society of Environmental Journalist, and Thai Journalists Association.
You can read the original article in Thai here: ‘สเรอัมเบล’ อุตสาหกรรมน้ำตาลแสนขมขื่นมิแปรเปลี่ยน สิทธิที่ดินอันไม่มีจริงของคนเกาะกง กัมพูชา