The intractable problem of land grabbing in Cambodia

Tip Teum, 68, poses in front of the sugar processing plant run by the Chinese company Rui Feng. The plant has been out of operation since 2019. Teum was evicted from her rice fields after the Cambodian government handed over 42,000 hectares of land to five agricultural companies in 2011, effectively depriving the farmer of her livelihood. Even though the project has faltered, hundreds of farmers are still banned from farming their former land. (Photo: François Camps)

Equal Times | 11 December 2023

The intractable problem of land grabbing in Cambodia

Located in the middle of a plain, the sugar processing plant rusts under the light rain at the end of a monsoon. “The lorries used to come and go non-stop. But since 2019 everything has come to a standstill,” says Tip Teum, a 68-year-old farmer from the Kuy ethnic group. A quick glance at the weeds growing around the disused petrol station at the end of a dirt road confirms her story: no vehicle has stopped here to fill up in a long time. “Since nothing here works anymore, we can once again cultivate the land in this area. But nothing will ever be the same as it was before,” she laments.

The 42,000 hectare economic concession was granted in 2011 for a period of 70 years to five Chinese companies, all belonging to the same conglomerate, the Hengfu Group Sugar Industry. The stated aim of the concession was ambitious: to grow and process some two million tonnes of sugar cane a year. Twelve years later, the local residents who were evicted from their land are all the more bitter now that the unprofitable and poorly financed agricultural project has collapsed.

Here in the heart of the northern province of Preah Vihear, 150 kilometres from the temples of Angkor, the issue of land use has been the subject of a fierce and lopsided battle for nearly 15 years between local communities and several major agricultural groups.

This land had been farmed for centuries by the Kuy people, who practised traditional crop rotation and collected mushrooms, flowers and natural resin from the surrounding tropical forests. After the concession was granted, the area was massively deforested to make way for intensive sugar cane cultivation. The concession companies evicted more than 400 families from their land without any compensation, effectively depriving them of their livelihoods.

Even though not a single stalk of sugar cane grows on the vast concession, the Chinese companies retain control of the land through the end of the contract in 2081. They are also preventing farmers from regaining possession of their ancestral lands despite the economic difficulties they face.

“Before the concession, I earned between US$300 and US$400 a month selling my crops and collecting forest products,” explains Tip Teum, who now farms just two hectares of rice next to her wooden house, located outside the boundaries of the concession. “I now earn just US$1,000 a year, which isn’t enough to live on,” she says.

Like the other farmers in her village, the concession has pushed Teum towards the market economy. “I had to go into debt to a microfinance institution to buy farm inputs and a tractor. We used to use cows for ploughing but without our land, we no longer have enough room to graze them. So we had to switch to mechanised means.”

Twelve percent of the territory granted as land concessions

Land has been central to development issues in Cambodia since the late 1990s. As it returned to peace and economic growth after more than 20 years of civil war, cases of land grabbing increased throughout the country. According to the local NGO Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO), 170,842 households were affected by land disputes involving the government between 2000 and 2023. That’s a total of more than 734,000 people, according to the latest available census, which puts the average number of inhabitants per household at 4.3. In 2015, the international organisation Global Diligence estimated the number of people affected by these disputes at 830,000. That same year, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan called those figures a “lie” claiming that the government had received only 500 land dispute complaints.

The problem began when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Pol Pot and his Maoist comrades abolished private property, destroyed existing title deeds and collectivised agriculture. When the brutal regime, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 1.5 million people, fell in 1979, chaos ensued. Millions of Cambodians, exhausted by famine and forced labour in the rice fields, settled wherever they could, without having title deeds to the land.

In an effort to regulate the situation, the government passed the 2001 Land Law, which stipulated in particular that “any person who, for no less than five years prior to the promulgation of the Law, enjoyed peaceful, uncontested possession of immovable property that can lawfully be privately possessed, has the right to request a definitive title of ownership”.

However, the titles issued were often only recognised at the local level, and rampant corruption within the government paved the way for massive expropriations as it sought to modernise its agricultural production in the second half of the 2000s. At that time, major economic concessions were granted to private companies, both Cambodian and foreign, to carry out wide-ranging agricultural and industrial projects. At their peak in 2012, these concessions covered more than two million hectares, or 12 per cent of the country, according to LICADHO. That year, the government adopted a moratorium, which theoretically froze the granting of new concessions.

In Preah Vihear, industrialists have had an even greater stranglehold on agricultural land. Despite the failure of the sugar cane plantations, exemplified by the closure of the processing plant, the land remains the property of the five companies to which the concession was granted. In order to farm the abandoned plots, local communities are now forced to rent their former land, which they once farmed for free.

Forced to pay US$105 per hectare per season to rent his land, Khuom was only able to earn a meagre profit of US$300 a year. “They’ve literally got us by the throat,” he says, miming a knife against his neck. “This year, the rent has gone up to US$120 per hectare. That’s too expensive for me and I wasn’t able to rent”. Lacking any other options, Khuom is now paid US$6 a day to pick cassava for another farmer. In the space of ten years, he has gone from independent farmer to farm labourer.

“Lack of political will to apply the law”

While Cambodia’s constitution recognises international human rights treaties as an integral source of Cambodian law, in practice they are not applied. With regard to the right to housing and protection against land grabbing, the country has adopted two UN directives, the ‘Right to Adequate Housing’ and the ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement’.

Both texts characterise forced evictions as “a gross violation of human rights” and reiterate the government’s obligation to provide “just compensation and sufficient alternative accommodation” that at least ensures access to “essential food, potable water and sanitation, basic shelter and housing […] livelihood sources […] and access to common property resources previously depended upon”.

“But there’s a real race for land going on, particularly among the powerful,” says Eang Vuthy, director of the NGO Equitable Cambodia, which fights for the rights of farmers. “These international treaties are supposed to act as safeguards and prevent systematic land grabbing, but there is a lack of political will to apply them”.

The international community’s attempts to respond to these repeated expropriations have seen little success. In 2014 and 2015, two communications were filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to have the evictions classified as crimes against humanity. But as the court told Equal Times in an email, the cases are still in the “initial screening phase” and “no decision has been taken to date”.

In response to “serious and systematic violations of human rights” in Cambodia, the European Union in 2020 suspended the country’s duty-free access to the EU market for certain products under the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) programme for the least developed countries. Sugar is one of the products targeted by European sanctions, primarily due to the mass expropriations committed in Preah Vihear and the neighbouring province of Oddar Meanchey.

These measures, however, have not been enough to put an end to expropriations in the South-East Asian country, particularly in Phnom Penh, where the city’s unrestrained development is taking place at the expense of the most vulnerable.

Protestors faced with legal action

To the north of the capital, Lake Boeung Tamok remains a lake in name only. It once provided a livelihood for thousands of families, who took advantage of its shallow waters to fish or grow the aquatic plants that are an important part of the local cuisine. Now, nearly 75 per cent of the 3,240-hectare body of water has been filled in to relocate various public institutions and build upmarket private residences for Cambodia’s business elite.

From her stilt house in Samroung Tbong commune, Sueun Sreysok can see the mountains of rubble that have replaced the lake’s cobalt-blue waters. She refuses to leave, despite the plot of land (half the size of her current plot), new house and US$10,000 in cash that the government offered her in compensation.

Sueun Sreysok has come under increasing pressure. After taking part in demonstrations to defend her property, she was charged with “intentional violence against authority” and placed under judicial supervision. One of her neighbours, Prak Sophea, fled to Thailand in August for fear of being arrested.

Three kilometres away, former members of the community have accepted the compensation they were offered. While they say they feel better now that they no longer have to endure pressure from the authorities, they lament the conditions under which they were relocated and the fact that the compensation was so low.

“When we moved in, there were just four bare walls and a cement floor. It cost us US$11,000 to fit out our interior, lay tiles and put up dividing walls. That’s more than we received for being evicted,” explains Tao Ni, who says that she earns a quarter of her previous income now that she no longer lives by the lake. “No one passes through here, so I hardly sell anything any more.”

When contacted by Equal Times, the Minister for Regional Planning, Say Samal, maintained that the developments currently underway on the lake “take into consideration the needs of local communities” and that the relocation solutions provided were “in line with international human rights standards”. He added that “all relocations are regulated, require thorough consultation, adequate and reasonable notice, and ensure that no one is made homeless or vulnerable as a result of relocation”.

But for Soeung Sarang, director of the Cambodian NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which has defended precarious communities in urban areas for almost 20 years, the conditions for a “just” process have not been met. He points in particular to the absence of a peaceful resolution following protests by residents.

“Genuine consultations should have been held before any project was given the green light. But the communities living on the shores of the lake only found out about the property developments after infilling had begun,” he explains. “Similarly, the government claims that socio-economic and environmental impact studies have been carried out. But they have never been made public”. Sarang is categorical: “All our field observations show that people’s livelihoods are profoundly affected for many years after they are evicted. So why continue along this path?”

In her stilt house facing the rubble that is gradually swallowing up the waters of Lake Boeung Tamok, Sueun Sreysok knows that she is fighting a losing battle. “For the rich, these waters are not a source of livelihood, as they are for me. But in Cambodia, development never benefits the poorest.”

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson

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