04/16/2007, 00.00
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Foreign and domestic companies grabbing farmers’ land with authorities’ complicity to build casi

Companies from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and China are getting concessions to exploit plantations or build casinos. Farmers are thrown off their land thanks to legal loopholes with little compensation for their lost land and homes. For some farmers, it is worst than under the Khmer Rouges.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Big foreign and domestic firms are grabbing the land of thousands of Cambodian families with the complicity of government officials. The land is then turned into plantations producing cash crops or in some cases used for casinos.

For the past ten years or more donor countries like Japan, South Korea and Malaysia have financed various projects in Cambodia like roads and bridges. In exchange many of their companies have received concessions of thousands of hectares of land to produce pineapple, sugar and other cash crops for export to their home markets.

Local sources have told AsiaNews that on the border with Thailand, Thai and Chinese groups have also made donations and played a role in public works in exchange for land to build casinos.

Since the 1970s when the Khmer Rouges abolished private ownership forcing people into collective farms land registry documents have not existed. This has meant that many farmers cannot prove they own the land. With the fall of the Khmer Rouges and their brutal regime which caused the death of at least a quarter of the Cambodian population, the six million survivors had abundant land. However, the population now stands at 13 million and land values have risen sharply.

Under a 2001 law anyone who has used land for at least five years can claim full title. For many farmers that is difficult to do because they cannot pay for the lengthy claim process. Many are also unaware of the law altogether. This has enabled the government to grant land that formally belongs to no one. Big companies awarded land can then forcibly remove farmers or even residents with little compensation.

Ko Kong Sugar Company is one example. Last year it was granted a concession for 9,700 hectares (24,250 acres) of land in Sre Ambel district in the southern province of Koh Kong. People already farming the land were thrown off. Ditches were dug and land was bulldozed under the protective watch of police in order to turn the land into a sugar plantation. More than 50 families lost their homes in Trapeang Kandol village alone. To supplement their rice harvests residents used to grow watermelons, maize and other lucrative cash crops for sale to a nearby tourist resort.

The company, which is owned by Cambodian Senator Ly Yong Phat, offered compensation of US$ 50 per hectare. Human rights lawyers, who are pursuing the case in the courts, say fair market value would have been 0-,000 per hectare. The net result has been that entire families have lost their livelihood.

When farmers opposed the company’s actions, military police shot at protesters wounding some. A petition sent to Cambodia’s parliament failed to achieve anything.

According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and the Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO), in 2006 alone, there were 116 such cases of forced expropriations in which companies responded to farmers’ protest with violence.

Part of the problem is that local governments have generally done little to protect the rights of the local population.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has recognised that “land-grabbing creates serious threat to the social and political stability of Cambodia.”

Although he vowed to punish any officials involved, so far, analysts say, his approach has been ad hoc, merely forcing a pair of high-profile officials to relinquish some land. Instead, 57 companies have been awarded vast “economic land concessions” covering nearly 1 million hectares since 1992.

“During the Khmer Rouge time, everything belonged to everyone,” said one local woman. “They provided food for us to eat. Now they take our land, without paying anything.”

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