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Trade & Investment

Land Is Life, and It’s Slipping Away

Displaced families in this relocation site, 45 kilometres from Phnom Penh, have no access to schools, water, food or health clinics. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

PHNOM PENH, Feb 14 2013 (IPS) - Nean Narin, a humble man and father of three children, says his family is going hungry. Narin lives in the village of Boeung Kak, situated on the edge of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. For years, he and other villagers relied on the Boeung Kak Lake for fish and plants, which they would eat and sell.

But in mid-2008, construction workers began pumping sand into the lake “in preparation for the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing project” sponsored by Shukaku, Inc. — a Cambodian firm owned by a Senator of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – and leased to the Chinese-owned Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co., Ltd.

Over the next four years, the project would displace over 3,000 families.

Narin and his neighbour Tep Vanny, along with a many others, refused to leave and now live a hand-to-mouth existence, stripped of a steady livelihood.

Vanny’s parents left Boeung Kak and moved to the rural Kampong Speu province, located about 48 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

But a sugar plantation tycoon has since claimed that land, and the family now faces eviction for the second time, she told IPS. All the fruit trees Vanny’s parents relied on for food have been cut down, and no compensation offered.

What was once a modest life has now become a daily struggle for survival as a result of a land buying spree in this Southeast Asian country of 14 million people, which experts say began during the 2007-2008 financial and food crisis.

"Land is life; land is dignity and without land farmers become workers for life, working as slaves for plantation owners.”
In Cambodia, land is equivalent to life: according to Germany’s federal ministry for economic cooperation and development (GTZ) over 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers.

One of the world’s least developed countries, Cambodia seems to have no place left to go but up: over 68 percent of its people live on less than two dollars a day and 26 percent suffer from hunger on a daily basis. But the wave of land acquisitions, experienced first-hand by thousands of people like Niren and Vanny, suggests that the situation could soon get much worse.

FDI feeds landlessness

For the last two decades a wave of foreign direct investment (FDI) has had lopsided results here.

The market-driven economy – launched in 1989 and opened to foreign investors in 1993 – fuelled a rapid increase in FDI, from practically nothing in 1990 to 800 million dollars in 2008, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Asian countries were the largest investors from 2000 to 2010: China topped the list with 47.6 percent of FDI, making South Korea — with 18.8 percent — the second-largest investor.

While investments initially went straight into sectors like tourism (53 percent), infrastructure (21 percent) and the garments industry (20 percent), the past half-decade has seen a steady rise in land investments.

Various local and international experts attribute this spike to the global food and financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 when farmland became a valuable asset to wealthier countries outsourcing agricultural production to increase their food security, and financial speculators cashing in on land investments.

But this pattern could have catastrophic implications for millions of peasants here – already land tenure has been shrinking and 20 percent of agricultural families in Cambodia are landless.

Rural populations holding tenuous land titles are left without recourse when international players contract land from the government in lengthy leases running from 70 to 99 years.

Various Cambodian rights groups have pointed out that small farmers find their land titles invalidated and are left with paltry compensation, if any at all.

Today, land is being gobbled up at the rate of two percent annually, according to the Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC).

The Cambodian League for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights (LICADHO), a local NGO, recently reported that this represents a total of over two million hectares. By 2012, roughly 22 percent of Cambodia’s land had been “leased” to private firms, the group found.

Though little is known about the international players behind the Economic Land Concessions (ELC) – a clause in Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law that gives the government the green light to lease up to 25,000 hectares for nearly a century at a time — Parliament Member Mu Sochua told IPS the Prime Minister’s signature can be found on all of the land deals.

But there is no way to prosecute him, the lawmaker said.

Between 2003 and 2008, land concessions in Cambodia affected 250,000 people, according to LICADHO – though very little information about these deals is available in the public domain.

Land investments are also characterised by a lack of data.  The last report released by the ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries was in 2006.  In that year, 30 land concessions were granted to foreign companies: about half were Chinese while the rest were Vietnamese, Thai, South Korean and from the U.S.

Now, ANGOC is calling attention to what they see as a looming food security crisis arising from rampant land acquisition by foreign interests.

This group of regional NGOs reports that Southeast Asia—“home to 75 percent of the world’s farming households, 80 percent of which are small-scale farmers and producers”—has now become the second most popular region for land grabs, after Africa.

Usually state-approved, the concessions are marked by an utter lack of consultation with peasants and local landowners.

As Sochua pointed out, “Land is life; land is dignity and without land farmers become workers for life, working as slaves for plantation owners.” She recently visited a community close to the border with Thailand, which had lost 4,000 hectares of paddy land to a 2011 government “concession”.

The developer is now renting the farmers’ land back to them at 100 dollars per year. Already poor, the villagers are now heavily in debt with precious few options for employment – as the daily wage for agricultural labour ranges from 2.5 to five dollars.

Given that foreign investment surpassed foreign aid in the past decade, international donors have less power to intercede in human rights violations, according to GTZ’s report.

The World Bank, for instance, froze its funding over the contentious case of the displacement of informal settlers at Boeung Kak Lake in 2011 but this not been able to halt the Chinese-backed project.

Those protesting the eviction are still under threat. The “BK 13”, a group to which Vanny belongs, were arrested and subsequently released. Others continue to languish in prison for speaking out about land rights.

Not only is FDI displacing farmers but the beneficial trade ranking the European Union (EU) afforded Cambodia as an LDC — known as the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement—has also taken a toll.  The scheme allows duty-free exports of agricultural products to the EU and has sparked an upsurge of land grabs for sugar cane plantations.

These acquisitions have displaced over 1,500 families in the Koh Kong, Kampong Speu and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

Advocates such as ANGOC believe non-violent grassroots movements are needed to change land policies.

The stirrings of collective action surfaced alongside the high-level summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held here last November, when various activist groups came together for a grassroots assembly to protest human rights violations in Cambodia. Concern over land grabs topped a long list of grievances outlined by civil society.

Vanny, who was closely involved in the people’s summit and has been selected by Vital Voices to receive the prestigious Global Leadership Award this year, sees no future without a long struggle.

“I want people to know that we need to fight for our rights,” she told IPS. “It might not benefit us now, but it will benefit our kids.”


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  • Moira Gallaga

    One of the sad things about this situation is it is very likely that the land taken away is going to end up being used to primarily produce goods to feed people from other countries to the detriment of the locals.

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