A full year has passed now since we started Production on LAND/WATER/RAIN. The stories we have been following have changed dramatically and so has the country.
Thousands of families in Cambodia are currently suffering the immediate impact of development as they are evicted from their homes or removed from their land to make way for urban development, sugar and rubber plantations, or dam construction. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, 283,000 people in Cambodia have been evicted or are at risk of forced relocation nationwide. As of 2004, it was estimated that 20-30% of landowners held 70% of the country’s land, while the poorest 40% occupied only 10%. In the countryside, 45% of families were landless or near landless.
In Kong Yuk village, only a few kilometers away from the family we are documenting in the jungles of Ratannakiri, the villagers have, in recent years, been stripped of their farmland, which has then been converted to rubber plantations. And each year, their remaining cashew orchards are quickly being encroached upon. The villagers have not only lost farmland, but they have also lost access to forests they depend on for foraging and wildlife. The villagers refuse to work on these plantations. However, thousands of workers traveling from all across Cambodia as well as neighboring Vietnam are coming to take their place.
The villagers in Sav Samourn’s village, however, refuse to believe their village and way of life is being threatened. They maintain that the land on which their village currently stands is communal land and is therefore protected. They are unaware that many villages that sit on communal land have already been seized. Even Sav Samourn does not feel the threat is imminent. Her solution, as is the solution for many indigenous families, is to simply move deeper and deeper into the forest and continue with their tradition of slashing and burning.
ECONOMIC LAND CONCESSIONS
In Koh Kong and Kampong Speu, the Cambodian government has granted Economic Land Concessions (ELC) to a company owned by Li Yong Phat, a powerful and well-known politician in Cambodia. The company has converted thousands of hectares of village farmland into sugar cane plantations and sugar processing plants, affecting the lives of hundreds of families.
Som At, of Kampong Speu province, also told a similar story. He believes the villagers have “become slaves on their own land.” Although Som At refuses to work on the plantations that were stolen from him, he knows many others who have no choice. The workers are paid only 12,000 riels a day (approx. 3 USD), not enough to feed the family or send the children to school. School fees cost 500 riels per child (approx. 0.12 USD). Som At believes the companies benefit threefold from the land concessions. Not only do they profit from the timber in the forests and the sugar cane from the land, but they also benefit from the labor of those they have stolen land from. Without land to grow food on, the villagers are only left with desperate choices.
The villagers in Sre Ambel and Aim Laing have already lost their land and are now struggling in the courts to get some of their land back. But with a judicial system rigged to benefit only the powerful and wealthy, it is unlikely this land will ever be returned to them. Many other villagers in other parts of the country are still struggling to keep what land they have left.
One village in Oudong District, Kampong Speu Province suffered two dramatic crackdowns by Cambodian police within the last year as the villagers refused to give up their land. Several villagers were seriously injured in the crackdowns.
While land is being taken wholesale from the villagers, land in Koh Kong Province is slowly being chipped away and transported to other parts of the world. Koh Kong is currently the site of a sand dredging trade with Singapore worth US $248m annually. Millions of tons of sand pumped from along the coast and in protected areas of Koh Kong are being shipped to Singapore to expand its coastline. The dredging operations threaten mangrove swamps, coral reefs and the largest seagrass bed in the South China Sea, which is home to several rare species including the Irrawaddy dolphin, dugong and seahorses.
We visited Sali on the plantation, surrounded by beautiful, lush mountains, and interviewed him there. Sari was no longer the young and idealistic 14 years old boy we met nearly three years ago. He had now grown into a young man eager to save enough money to one day get married and have his own family.
Villagers in the provinces are not the only people being threatened off their land. In fact, many of the evictions taking place in Cambodia, take place in the capital city of Phnom Penh. More than 10% of the population of Phnom Penh has been evicted since 1990. One the most outrageous evictions is taking place in Boeung Kak Lake, affecting 4,252 families. Although a land law was passed in 2001 recognizing land titles if proof of residence for five continuous years can be shown, residents of Boeung Kak were denied land titles.