Cambodian Land Grab

ASIAWATCH — Phnom Penh is waving in investors who buy up massive plots, forcing locals out of their homes and into gruelling, low-paid factory jobs. And as a recent conference on the problem made clear, it’s a trend that’s spreading throughout the developing world. Luke Hunt reports

Land grabbing has emerged as the biggest blight to afflict Cambodia in recent years. Thousands of villagers have been pushed off their family plots for what they say is too little compensation as big corporations move in with the government’s blessing.

There is no shortage of complaints or protests, particularly in the district courts. In Bavet, near the Vietnamese border one woman says her family was chased off their property by politically connected neighbours armed with guns and knives who then turned their land into an access road.

Another woman is forced to work in a clothing factory to make ends meet after business interests bought up district land and blocked access to public irrigation water, meaning her family could no longer grow rice. An offer was then made to buy their useless plot at a reduced price.

Enormous concessions have been granted to Malaysian palm oil plantation barons, Chinese developers, Russian timber merchants and Australian miners.

According to human rights group Licadho, about 2.1 million hectares _ an area about the size of Wales _ has been transferred in Cambodia from subsistence farming to large industrial firms since 2003, affecting 400,000 people.

It’s an enormous issue that is also affecting Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and Laos, where dam construction _ at least 12 of them are planned for the lower Mekong River _ is threatening to push villagers off their traditional lands on an unprecedented scale.

”There is actually nothing new in this. Land grabbing has been happening for hundreds of years. The British did it in India, the Spaniards in the Philippines and the French here in Cambodia, now we’re doing it to ourselves,” said Seema Gaikwad, Asian regional coordinator for the International Land Coalition.

”It’s another type of colonisation.”

Human rights activists, anti-logging environmentalists, journalists, bloggers, politicians and in particular ordinary villagers have been killed, jailed and exiled simply for speaking out over the issue.

In Cambodia, leading environmentalist Chhut Vuthy was killed in April during confrontations with the Cambodian authorities over land, and a 14-year-old girl was shot dead in May during an eviction of 1,000 families, causing an international outcry.

In Ho Chi Minh City, three Vietnamese bloggers were recently jailed for their coverage of a range of issues, including land grabbing. In India last week, 50,000 people angered by official silence on the issue marched 350km from the central city of Gwalior to Delhi demanding land reform.

The silencing of critics was a recurring theme at last week’s Asian Land Forum in Phnom Penh, a timely event given the jailing of Mam Sonando for 20 years after Prime Minister Hun Sen alleged the Cambodian broadcaster was behind a secessionist plot. Human rights groups were far from convinced and say his incarceration had more to do with his criticisms of huge land grants.

”It’s happening the world over. In Africa we’re seeing people being pushed off their land and into menial jobs they would never even have thought of,” Ms Gaikwad said on the sidelines of the conference.

”In India, Nepal and Bangladesh they are forced to move to places with no access to water, electricity, education or hospitals. It’s the loss of their cultural identity,” she said.

”Each year we hand governments recommendations and they don’t even look at them.”

Among those recommendations are transparency and the right to make informed decisions based on unfettered access to details involving land acquisitions, ownership titles and company records _ conditions that require a free press and the political will to implement and enforce laws.

The overwhelming number of complaints of land grabbling have prompted the international development agency Oxfam to urge the World Bank to temporarily freeze all investments involving land while it reviews its procedures to ensure the rights of impoverished land holders are not ignored.

Oxfam said Liberia had seen 30% of its land swallowed-up in just five years and the agency has also been threatened with expulsion from Uganda after accusing the government there of allocating large parcels of land to big corporations.

Oxfam calculated that land deals had tripled world-wide after food prices hit record highs in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008. Importantly, according to Oxfam, nearly 60% of investments in agricultural land by foreign investors between 2000 and 2010 have been to grow crops that can be used for biofuels, adding further upward pressure to food costs.

Now, Oxfam says, another global wave of land grabbing is beckoning with the cost of food again nearing peak levels.

Norly Grace Mercado, East Asia coordinator for Oxfam, said the face of land grabbing had changed from the Conquistadors of old to commercial plantation owners, and the rush for land had intensified over the last three years, forcing prices to rise significantly.

To put this in perspective, she quoted figures from the Asean Secretariat. In 2010, a whopping US$74 billion worth of foreign direct investment was pumped into the Southeast Asian land market, up almost 95% on the previous year.

”It’s going to become a much bigger problem and get more complicated with business positioning ahead of 2015 when Asean is set to become a fully integrated economic community,” she told Spectrum from the sidelines of the conference.

”No one strategy can fix this. It’s difficult. How do you introduce land reform in the Philippines when all the senators are landlords? There needs to be a series of strategies that deal with policies, laws, implementation, community involvement and independent monitoring.”

This kind of thinking is winning attention. In Geneva on Wednesday, Cambodian monk Luon Sovath (Pictured) received the Martin Ennals Award from human rights groups for his stand against forced evictions, a cause he rallied to after witnessing family and friends being evicted from their homes in 2009.

Luon Sovath has faced threats of arrest and disrobing while maintaining a non-violent Buddhist approach using videos, songs and poems to defend traditional rights to a home.

Among his concerns is the creation of an underclass. Landless and denied traditional access to a home, many people have no choice but to find jobs in factories producing clothing for some of the world’s biggest brand names, including Levi Strauss, Gap, Puma and Adidas.

Cambodia offers perhaps the cheapest labour pool in the world. A paltry minimum wage of US$90 (2,750 baht) a month has allowed factory owners, the brands and exporters to profit in an industry that earns about $1 billion a year, helped by generous no-quota access to European and US markets.

”People are forced to take an occupation they are not skilled in, so they get paid as untrained labour for doing menial jobs they were provided with after being displaced,” said Ms Gaikwad, adding that conditions in such factories were often ”pathetic”.

The net result adds another layer to the existing cycles of poverty. Land grabbing is also providing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with a chronic political headache heading into the next election, due by mid-2013.

Dave Welsh, country director for the American Centre of International Labour Solidarity, said most of Cambodia’s 400,000 clothing workers were internal migrants, and their displacement and low wages made it difficult to fight court battles over land disputes back in their home provinces.

”The garment industry is the single largest industry in the country. Everyone it touches will have some link to someone else who is affected by land dispossession,” he said.

”It could be a definitive issue for unions to unite on and organise around leading up to the next election, and it will provide unions with an opportunity to develop as part of a more mature civil society.”

The lead-up to those elections could also provide a kind of hot house experiment for the rest of the world, offering a few pointers about what to do, or what not to do, when land grabbing gets a rubber stamp from the nation’s leaders and becomes part and parcel of everyday life.

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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