The battle for Cambodian farm land

ABC Radio Australia | 25 May 2010

A Cambodian farmer waters his vegetables outside of Phnom Penh (Photo: AP/Heng Sinith)

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speakers: Hong Neu, Cambodian farm owner; David Pred, executive director, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia; You Tho, commune councillor of Amleang; military police/company guards

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Cambodia has reportedly been promised one hundred million US dollars from the United States to help fight hunger and develop agriculture among small-scale farmers. The money will be given directly to the Cambodian government, even though it's regarded as one of the most corrupt in Asia. While donor countries throw lots of money at the issue of food security, the challenge faced by many small-scale farmers in Cambodia is the forced take-over of their land by those with government or military connections. One of the biggest cases currently being fought out is in Kampong Speu province.

COCHRANE: A tractor ploughing a field before the rice planting season should be a common sight at this time of year in Cambodia. In this case however, it's an act of defiance and optimism, there's no guarantee the owner of this 10 hectare farm, Hong Neu, will ever see the rice that's about to be planted.

The day before, bulldozers arrived at her back fence, belonging to a sugar company owned by a powerful tycoon.

HONG: Yesterday, the company's employees came to clear my land, without saying anything. I asked them to talk about compensation first before clearing my land, they said they'd leave just 200 meters of land for me and would clear everything.

COCHRANE: The land is part of a 10-thousand hectare concession that was awarded by the government to Ly Yong Phat, a senator with the ruling Cambodian People's Party, who's acquired huge tracts of land across the country.

David Pred is executive director of the land rights organisation Bridges Across Borders Cambodia. He says clearing fertile rice paddies to plant commercial sugarcane crops will have a direct effect on food security.

PRED: People lose their food; they lose their access to land simply so that rich and powerful Cambodians and foreign investors can make profit from cash crops for export.

COCHRANE: A UN study in 2005 estimated that a million hectares or a quarter of Cambodia's farm-able land has been granted to economic land concessions.

PRED: Another study by GTZ shows that only about 10 per cent of these concessions are actually in production, are actually being used, so the real purpose why these investors seem to be acquiring this land is for speculative reasons.

COCHRANE: A coalition of five civil society groups has called for a moratorium on the concessions and is urging international donors to support the freeze.

PRED: The problem with the money that's being thrown at the government from international development partners like AusAID and now this new announcement from USAID, is that the Cambodian government is completely in the driver's seat and the current policy of the government is favouring large-scale agriculture plantations, this policy is incredibly unsustainable because it's depriving local people of access to land and natural resources, resources and land that Cambodians need to grow food.

COCHRANE: The criticisms of Australia's aid policy follow comments by Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith that more needs to be done to make sure aid money helps those it's intended for.

On the ground in Kampong Speu, commune councilor You Tho has represented the interests of the farmers and is sceptical that the reported 100-million dollars from the US will be put to good use.

THO: I think the US funding is good if the government can do what it says. I'm afraid that the Cambodian government misused the money, then the funding is no use for the people.

COCHRANE: We tried to ask the Phnom Penh Sugar Company about their operations in Kampong Speu, but were stopped at the gate by military police with AK47s.

COCHRANE: So these military police at the company gate, what are they saying?

THO: He says [the] company representative has left so we cannot meet her and his boss says we cannot enter.

COCHRANE: The role of the military has been another concern in Kampong Speu and other land disputes.

Earlier in the year, the Cambodian government announced a military sponsorship program whereby businesses could give money and goods to specific military units, in what was described by officials as "a culture of sharing".

At the time, rights groups voiced concerns that this would increase the use of the military to protect commercial interests.

In the case of Kampong Speu, armed soldiers from Battalion 313 were present at the forced land clearings. That battalion is sponsored by Ly Yong Phat, the owner of the sugar company.

So far, the community in Kampong Speu has resisted some of the company's clearings. Commune councillor You Tho was jailed for several days and has been kicked out of the ruling party, for standing up for his constituents but he says he will keep fighting for land rights in his community.

THO: I cannot predict what happens tomorrow. But if the people unite in the way as they did, for example when I was put in jail and they cry and they protest to get me released. Then I think we will still have land for the future. But if we don't have such solidarity, we will not have land in the future.

COCHRANE: Farm owner, Hong Neu, is also looking to the future, determined that this season's rice crop will be consumed by her family, and not Ly Yong Phat's sugar empire.

HONG: I will prevent them from clearing my land. I have everything here - mango trees, fish ponds, vegetables, rice. This is the way I can raise my children, so I can't let them have my land.
  • Icon-world  ABC
  • 25 May 2010

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