Sun, Mar 27, 2016 - Page 5 News List

Zeal for rubber drives ethnic group from land

AP, BOUSRA, Cambodia

The remains of trunks and stumps from old trees that were cut down to make way for a rubber plantation operated by Socfin-KCD are pictured on Feb. 26 last year near Bousra commune, Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia.

Photo: AP

For generations, the indigenous Bunong were famous as the elephant keepers and masters of the forests in eastern Cambodia. They called the fertile, rolling hills of their ancestral homeland meh ne, or mother. From its rich red soil, they harvested rice, pumpkins and bananas. From the forests, they gathered honey, resin and medicinal plants. Under the leafy canopies, they buried their dead and worshiped spirits.

That changed in 2008, when without warning, bulldozers made way for rubber plantations the government granted to a European-Cambodian joint venture in poor, rural Mondulkiri Province. Such economic land concessions were meant to promote development, but for 800 Bunong families, the long-term leases have brought mostly hardship and loss.

The Cambodian human rights group LICADHO estimates that more than 200 state-linked land deals have harmed 500,000 people, and the UN has called land-rights-related conflicts Cambodia’s top human-rights problem.

Josie Cohen, land campaigner at Global Witness, which investigates economic networks behind environmental destruction, said land leases are “altering the very fabric of rural societies” in Cambodia and nearby Laos and Myanmar.

The Bunong of Bousra commune now must earn money to buy rice they once grew, and outsiders hold most of the plantation jobs. Despite promised development, many roads are still dirt.

Kop Let, wife of a village chief, says her family has struggled since the plantation swallowed most of their 12 hectares. She grows cassava on their remaining land, sells homemade rice wine and has taken out a US$3,000 loan.

“I have now become a poor woman,” she said. “Our identity as a people is disappearing little by little.”

The Bunong say they never were warned their land would be taken and were not offered compensation before the land started to be cleared — two steps required under Cambodian law. Many say they felt forced to accept what they considered to be inadequate compensation.

Socfin, the Luxembourg-based agro-industrial company whose unit owns most of all three Bousra plantations, said it was invited by the government and that villagers were informed and compensated beforehand, but declined to provide evidence. Its joint venture with Cambodian developer Khaou Chuly Development Co (KCD) operates two of the plantations.

“We brought wealth to a place where there was nothing,” Socfin chief executive Luc Boedt said in an interview in Brussels.

A 2009 legal analysis obtained by the Associated Press and written by Maia Diokno, a human rights lawyer hired by Socfin-KCD as a consultant, said the plantation work began without warning and produced the “unfortunate result of dispossessing indigenous persons of their land.”

“They didn’t comply with Cambodian law,” Diokno said.

Even so, Sok Sam Ouen, a human rights lawyer in Phnom Penh, said that Cambodian authorities approved the leaseholder’s actions.

Cambodian Minister of Environment Say Samal said the overall aim of the concessions program was to improve people’s livelihoods throughout the country, but acknowledged problems in carrying it out.

“We are changing that now,” he said.

The government put a moratorium on new leases in 2012 and has reviewed each one. It revoked 40, but many disputes remain.

Today, Bousra’s hills are covered in rows of rubber trees, many nearly ready to be tapped.

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