BBC | 12 August 2009
By Robert WalkerBBC World Service Romam Fil is moving rapidly through a dense patch of forest. Every few metres he pauses and points to edible plants and roots that the Jarai people of north eastern Cambodia have relied on for generations. Then suddenly the trees come to an end. In front of us is a vast clearing, the red earth churned up and dotted with tree stumps. Beyond that, stretching as far as we can see is a rubber plantation, the young trees are still thin and spindly and sway gently in the breeze. This is the scene of a battle the Jarai people of Kong Yu village have been fighting, and losing for the past five years. It started when local officials called a meeting and said they needed some of the forest. "They told us they wanted to give part of our land to disabled soldiers," said Mr Fil. "They said if you don't give us the land, we'll take it. So we agreed to give them a small area, just 50 hectares." The villagers say they were then invited to a party and when many of them were drunk they were asked to put their thumbprints on documents. "Most of us don't know how to read or write, and the chiefs did not explain what the thumbprints were for," said Mr Fil. The villagers later found they had signed away more than 400 hectares - and the land was not for disabled soldiers, but a private company who began making way for the rubber plantation. "They cleared areas where our people had their farms, and they destroyed our burial ground," said Mr Fil. [caption id="attachment_6791" align="alignleft" width="226" caption="The Cambodian government has been accused of undermining the poor"][/caption] Political connections? Lawyers for the owner of the plantation company, a powerful businesswoman called Keat Kolney, insist she bought the land legally. But groups advocating for local land rights in Cambodia say part of the reason she was able to acquire the land is because she is married to a senior official in the ministry of land management. It is not the only case where those closely connected to senior government figures are alleged to have taken land from poor Cambodians. Five years ago, in north-western Pursat province a large grazing area was turned into an economic land concession - land the government grants to private firms for investment in large-scale agriculture. It was allocated to a politically well-connected company called Pheapimex. "They just came one day with their bulldozers and started clearing the land straight away," said Chamran, a farmer in the area. "So we organised a demonstration but then a grenade was thrown among us - we don't know who by. Nine people were injured. The military police pointed a gun in my stomach and said if you hold another demonstration we will kill you." Transparent process Under the law, land concessions granted by the government should not exceed 10,000 hectares but the Pheapimex concession, although much of it is so far inactive, covers 300,000 hectares. Global Witness, an environmental pressure group, estimates Pheapimex now controls 7% of Cambodia's land area. The organisation says the company's owners, a prominent senator and his wife, have strong links to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Pheapimex did not reply to requests for a response to these allegations, but the Cambodian government maintains that the process by which private companies acquire land is both transparent and legal. "The requirement is not to be close to the prime minister," said Phay Siphan, spokesman for Cambodia's Council of Ministers. "The requirement is that you have enough capital, you have the technology to develop the land." 'Kleptocratic state' It is not just in rural areas that people complain of losing land. Cambodia's recent stability, following decades of violence, has attracted a rapid boom in tourism and a race among foreign and local entrepreneurs for prime real estate on which to build new resorts.