Indigenous kuy people block outsiders from clearing farmland in Preah Vihear

Around 100 Indigenous people block tractors from clearing farmland in Preah Vihear's Chheb district on January 7, 2024.

Camboja News | 17 January 2024

Indigenous kuy people block outsiders from clearing farmland in Preah Vihear

M’lou Prey II commune authorities, of Preah Vihear’s Chheb district, submitted documentation Tuesday to the district regarding alleged encroachment on land farmed by Indigenous Kuy people following a protest earlier this month. 

On January 7, nearly 100 Kuy people from Bos and Preus Ka’ak villages gathered to prevent outsiders with tractors from clearing farmland. The dispute marks the second incident in less than a month of Kuy people from Chheb district fighting back against outsiders clearing community farmland. 

Villagers arrived at the farmland, an area of about 800 hectares, on January 7 and discovered seven unfamiliar men clearing the land using three tractors. 

“People came out to prevent those unknown outsiders from further clearing the farmland where they have cultivated cassava for generations,” said Pean Sophat, a Preus Ka’ak community member who was present that day.

The outsiders would not reveal their identities, and villagers did not know where they came from or who they were working for. Sophat said the men, who had already cleared about two hectares when the villagers arrived, claimed that the land had been legally granted to them by commune and district officials. 

In an interview with CamboJA News on January 13, Kao Rin, Chheb district deputy governor, said he didn’t know anything about the conflict and denied that district authorities had permitted outsiders to use the land in question.  

“No letters have been received from outsiders requesting permission to use the land,” he said.

Chheb district governor Long Soben echoed Rin’s comments, saying on January 13 that he did not know who the outsiders got permission from and that district authorities were not yet informed about the dispute. 

Kan Sovankea, M’lou Prey II commune’s chief who is also Kuy, said the commune had not granted permission to any outsiders to use this land. He plans to work with district authorities to find a solution, and awaits their reply to the letter he submitted Tuesday.

Preah Vihear provincial governor Kim Rithy and deputy governor Nop Vuthy did not respond to requests for comment.

The site of the dispute is part of an economic land concession that was granted to the Chinese company Hengfu Group Sugar Industry in 2011. The area spans 42,420 hectares and reportedly encroaches on forest and farmland of local Kuy people. 

A 2019 VOD investigation found that thousands of Kuy people in Preah Vihear lost their livelihoods after Hengfu cleared around 20,000 hectares of forest and farmland. According to VOD, the company skirted Cambodian law to receive a concession four times the size of what is legally permitted. Community members clashed with the company over the years and faced legal threats and lawsuits filed by the company and its subsidiaries and contractors. 

A representative of the company could not be reached for comment. 

The company has shut down its operations since at least early 2020, and community members then began cultivating the land again.

Last year, a person claiming to represent Hengfu told Sovankea the company wanted to continue operations on the plantation, but that man was not one of the outsiders from the January 7 incident. 

“The thing is, the land that the villagers farm on is not their land, it’s the land that the government granted to the Chinese company,” Sovankea said.

Under the 2001 Land Law, land concessions created for industrial cultivation may be canceled if they remain inactive for more than 12 months without proper justification. The Indigenous communities in the district have attempted to officially reclaim the land, making demands of provincial authorities, but the government has not issued them land titles. 

Many Cambodians living in the provinces do not have land titles granted by the national government and the current titling processes have failed to reach all Cambodians. The National Assembly adopted a new code of environment and natural resources in June 2023, which some Indigenous rights activists believe will undermine their long-standing land rights claims.

“We urged the new government to grant the land to the people because we need to farm to make a living,” Sophat told CamboJA News. “The overwhelming majority of the Indigenous people here have fallen into debt, and they do not have enough land to plant crops in order to pay back the microfinance loans and feed their families.”

Preus Kaak community representative Seourn Tha recounted that during the dispute, the outsiders said they would pull up all the crops planted by villagers and plow over the area. 

“People were threatened by the outsiders who said that if the villagers kept protesting to demand the land, they would file a complaint and have them arrested because they [the outsiders] claimed to have a legal title to the land,” Tha said, adding that villagers decided to protest anyway.

Tha said he wished to have cooperation from authorities as the community continues to try to acquire a land title.

The clash followed a similar protest in early December by Kuy people from Dang Phlet and Narong villages in Chheb district. The villagers gathered to halt an excavator from clearing their community land which they have used for generations. These community members fear losing their land to powerful elites, as they also do not have a collective land title.  

Am Sam Ath, operations director of Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said Indigenous communities must have special protection rights to safeguard their land. He added that authorities should allow the villagers in this incident to farm on the land, even though it is part of an economic land concession, because the people have used the land for generations before the sugar company arrived. 

“When there is no solution and a company goes bankrupt on an economic land concession, authorities should allow people to gain a title to cultivate on their traditional land,” Sam Ath told CamboJA. “If there are outsiders who were not involved with the land before and are trying to gain control of the land, authorities should take action against them.”

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