KOH KONG Province - Thousands of people have been evicted from their homes to make way for a Chinese development in Koh Kong province. But some of the families have returned to their land, leaving a relocation site they say was insufficient for their needs.
For families like those of Chum Siran, life has become more difficult since their removal from the development site, to this relocation site in the mountains of Koh Kong. Before the relocation, her family raised cashews, while her husband fished.
But they were moved along with 1,100 other families, forced to relocate to new villages in the mountain to make way for the massive development, undertaken by the Chinese Union Development Group, to build a resort and casino on some 36,000 hectares of land along the pristine coast.
“It’s hard to earn a living here, as there is not much work to do,” Chum Siran told VOA Khmer in an interview. “Sometimes we get hired to clear some forest, but often we have no money and nothing to eat.”
Chum Siran and others here say they are considering moving back to their old villages.
Some already have.
Se Khun, a fisherman and father of seven, said he came back to his home village of Chamlong Kor, in Botumsakor district, after being away for a while.
“I’m used to working on my fishing boat, so I don’t know how to find other jobs [elsewhere], and I have many children to feed,” he said.
A few dozen villagers have remained at Chamlong Kor, resisting continued calls for relocation to make way for the Union Development project, a $3.8 billion development with a 99-year lease on a vast swath of land within the previously protected Botumsakor National Park. The project will include hotels, a casino, a golf course and a seaport, according to the building plans.
Rights workers in the province say the compensation packages offered by the company are not enough.
“The exchange for people’s homes and farmland, which already have plantations that bear fruit, for a new home and plot of land where there is nothing is not fair,” said In Kongchit, a monitor for the rights group Licadho.
With government approval, Union Development is allowed to compensate villages from between a few hundred dollars to $8,000 per hectare, depending on the value of their land. Families are provided a new wooden home and 2.5 hectares of land to farm.
That has proven insufficient for many families, said Neang Boratino, a rights monitor for Adhoc.
“So the government and the local authorities, as well as the company, should implement a ‘tiger-skin policy,’ by putting aside the existing village land for them to use,” he said.
Union Development representatives were unavailable for comment. But Orn Phearak, governor of Botumsakor district, said letting the people remain on the land is not possible.
“This is a tourism zone, so there must be roads, water systems and high-rise buildings,” he said. “Thus, we cannot let people live sparsely in this or that area.”
An inter-ministerial working group is trying to solve the problem, he said. “But when they must leave, peacefully, or forcibly, I do not know.”
Orn Phearak said he too had given up land for the sake of the development.
“Do you know how much land I lost to the project?” he said. “I owned more than 10 hectares of land there in the coastal area, which I loved, and had wanted my own plantations. But when it’s needed for development, how can I claim it? If I wanted to reclaim, I would be stripped of my rank, because I’m an implementor of the law.”
Still, some villagers here say they are not leaving.
Lim Song, a clergyman at the village’s pagoda who is more than 60 years old, said more than 40 families remain here, “hungry for legal ownership” of the land.
“If I move to the new relocation site, I want to ask how long will it take me to plant coconut trees again?” he said. “I will not live to see them, so I won’t leave, and I would rather die under my coconut trees here.”