By Ven Rathavong and Ros Chanveasna
Kampot, Cambodia, September 21, 2015
TECHO APHIVAT, Kampot (Khmer Times) – Demonstrating that land disputes can be defused through negotiations, patience, and money – a four-year-old land fight was settled here yesterday when 13 squatter families agreed to accept payments and leave the land they had occupied.
The saga has been well chronicled by Khmer Times, in part because the squatters were living on land inside a palm oil plantation controlled by T. Mohan, owner of Khmer Times. Mr. Mohan, a Malaysian, is Managing Director of Virtus Green Plantations (Cambodia) Pte, Ltd.
Symbolic Land Case
The squatter case, 120 km southwest of Phnom Penh, near Bokor National Park, had become symbolic in a national debate over Cambodia’s respect for land ownership rights. Clear titles and land rights are the legal keystones that allow large investments needed to create the kinds of agro businesses commonly seen in Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, and the United States.
Virtus has been investing up to $2.5 million a year to develop much of the 6,718 hectares it was granted under the framework of a Ministry of Environment Economic Land Concession, or ELC.
Yesterday, the 13 families acknowledged they were living and planting crops on someone else’s land. But, they said were satisfied with the payments and would move. They said they would use the money to buy farmland elsewhere. Several said they hope to get jobs with the company, which employs about 250 people here.
“I decided to give up my land, because I don’t want to stay alone,” said Som Touch, leader of one of the 13 families. “I didn’t want to give up my land, which I had bought from other local people. But my neighbors all around my land had opted for compensation, which they said was fair and adequate.”
Use Compensation to Buy Land Elsewhere
Using the compensation for the 3.5 hectares she had occupied, Ms. Touch, age 49, said that she was buying 10 acres of farmland with clear title. “I have already paid the owner $2,000,” she said.
Duk Saron, age 55, claimed she occupied the disputed land in 2000. But she decided to give up her 1.7 hectares of cultivated land for an undisclosed amount, which she said was adequate.
“I wanted to give up this land to the company, but I always go to the forest and never stay at home, so I rarely met the company’s representative,” she said. “I have other land elsewhere. I just relinquished claims to part of my land. I need money to treat my health.”
Ms. Saron said VGP had stayed away from her land, and had waited for a peaceful and amicable solution with villagers. But she said new people come here to occupy land, often claiming they had paid for it.
“Whoever hears about the land, they always come to grab,” she said, noting that when she arrived in 2000, the area was largely forest.
Ek Koy, chief of Techo Pongrok village, said that in 2011, 13 families moved onto VGP’s ELC land and built houses.
Yesterday, she said: “We were not involved in pushing the villagers to relinquish the land for compensation. They decided by themselves.”
She praised the peaceful resolution: “This VGP Company is good, because they paid compensation to villagers at a high price, taking into account the labor spent on the land, and without fighting.”
Government Avoids Conflict
Facing a general election campaign in two years, the national government seeks to resolve land disputes without physical confrontations.
At the resolution ceremony, villagers listened to Environment Minister Say Sam Al who talked to them by speaker phone. He praised both sides for reaching an agreement peacefully, citing it as an example for the nation.
Kampot’s Deputy governor, Chieng Phalla, also had similar words of praise for the peaceful settlement when he talked to the villagers by speaker phone.
“We do not want a confrontation between villagers and the company,” he said. He added that provincial authorities want any solution accepted by the villagers, and one that will provide peace and happiness.
Other Case to Resolve
Ms. Koy, the village chief, said that 37 other families in another zone, Toek Chinh, are in the process of resolving land claims with the company.
“There are only 10 families, but this was resolved already and a provincial commission group, which was in charge of land measuring campaign, has measured the land,” she said, rejecting the claims by the 37 families.
She added that she has told her villagers to stop grabbing company land.
“They do not listen to us, so they still continue grab the land,” she complained.
At the ceremony, a VGP Assistant Manager, Long Sour said that the company management conducted cordial talks in the presence of commune and village officials.
“This is a win-win for the villagers and the company as they had occupied some strategic areas, and now they have vacated the land in exchange for cash compensation,” he said, referring to the plantation’s planting plans.
But, as the village chief and deputy provincial governor listened, he warned: “If any other person comes to claim or encroach this land, they will face the full brunt of the law as the land has now been relinquished to the company in the presence of local officials.”
Image: Som Touch, a villager, makes her mark on papers ratifying her agreement to give up land in exchange for compensation from the ELC company. KT Photo: Ven Rathavong