Land concession threatens Phnong livelihood and culture

Published on July 19, 2005

On August 9, 2004, the Cambodian government agreed to give land in Mondulkiri province to the Wuzhishan L.S. Group, a Cambodian-Chinese company, to operate a pine tree plantation. While Cambodia's Land Law restricts land concessions to a maximum of 10,000 hectares, the Cambodian government agreed in principle to give Wuzhishan Group a total of 199,999 hectares. It approved an immediate 10,000 hectares for testing and planting, with the remainder to be given later after further deliberations and discussions with Cambodia's foreign donors.

The agreement between the government and Wuzhishan (the details of which have not been made public) was conducted without concsultation of the Phnong people, an indigenous population inhabiting the concession area. No environmental or social impact assessments were conducted.

The activities of Wuzhishan Group, which have expanded to surpass the 10,000 hectare limit, have encroached upon local Phnong communities resulting in the following:

The desecration of religious sites including burial grounds and spirit forests; these also include the theft or destruction of offerings made at burial sites

The loss of cattle grazing lands used by the Phnong and of plots of farmland, known as chamkars, which are part of their traditional rotaional agricultural system

The spraying of the herbicide glyphosate onto areas used by Phnong villagers, depriving them of useable land and allegedly causing health problems

The theft of fruit, vegetables and domestic animals by employees working for Wuzhishan

The use of threats and intimidation by the company and local authorities against local Phnong who have complained against the land concession

Approximately 15% of Cambodia's land had been given to private companies

After appeals to local provincial officials failed, villagers from the affected communities began demonstrations and blockades to prevent further encroachment on their lands by the Wuzhishan Group.

On June 16, 2005, approximately 650 villagers from the Sen Monorom and Dak Dam communes in Mondulkiri province launched a protest against the Wuzhishan Group and provincial authorities. The demonstration was dispersed by 50 provincial police officers who fired water cannons at the protesters, knocking two women unconscious.

The following day, the Cambodian government issued a temporary injunction against Wuzhishan from continuing any planting activities, and ordered Mondulkiri provincial authorities to ensure that local villagers' lands were not included in the plantation concession area.

In spite of the government’s order, Wuzhishan continued to plant pine trees and local authorities took no meaningful measures to prevent this. Rather, police officers and government officials stepped up their efforts to try to stop Phnong villagers from continuing their protests and blockades.

On July 7, about 1,000 villagers tried to demonstrate in protest at the government's failure to enforce the suspension of the company's work. One or two hundred demonstrators were able to make their way to Mondulkiri provincial town where they met with government representatives, while the remainder were turned back by the police. Two days later, Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni visited Mondulkiri province to celebrate Arbor Day by planting a tree. In his speech, the King identified with the concerns of the indigenous communities, adding that he and the Royal Family shared the sadness of the affected groups.

The Mondulkiri dispute reflects a wider problem in Cambodia with large-scale land concessions which often bring negative impacts on local populations. About 2.7 million hectares (approximately 15%1) of Cambodia's land had been given to private companies for commerical development, according to a report issued by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia. Such concessions are often granted on land which was already being used by local populations, therefore affecting the livlihoods of thousands of families and fueling tensions between poor rural communities and wealthy businesspeople.

The Cambodian government’s granting of the Wuzhishan concession without regard to the impact upon the local population violates its domestic and international obligations to protect the rights of its own citizens, including the right to sustainable development, property, and cultural heritage. Until the government takes sincere steps to implement its own law, the Mondulkiri dispute and similar ones elsewhere risk escalating into violent conflicts.

1 According to an article by Associated Press (link)