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Landmark Settlement in Cambodian Land-grab Falls Short for Many Villagers

Farmers from some of provinces stage a protest rally near prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Farmers from some of provinces stage a protest rally near prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

It has been more than a decade since 64-year old Khorn Khorn lost three hectares of land to a close ally of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

It has been more than a decade since 64-year old Khorn Khorn lost three hectares of land to a close ally of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The controversial senator Ly Yong Phat wanted the holding to expand a sugarcane plantation in Kampong Speu province.

At her house in Sre Chrab village, about 10 kilometers from the land she lost, the mother of seven recounts how the loss affected her life: she couldn’t find work or make ends meet, her children dropped out of school, and she now has ever-growing debt, amounting to about $6,000, a substantial sum in a nation where the average annual income is $1,680, according to 2019 government statistics.

“Before I lost the land, I had never been in debt,” Khorn Khorn said in an interview with VOA Khmer last week. “I am afraid that I could not pay it. I don’t know whether my son will be able to pay this month or not,” she said. “I am very concerned every day.”

The sugarcane plantation was given to Ly Yong Phat as an economic land concession, a controversial land-lease program that resulted in thousands of land disputes across Cambodia. The decade-old plantation has been involved in numerous counts of forced evictions, deforestation and child labor.

But, in a landmark settlement announced on February 27, the Australian and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to some 1,200 families affected by the protracted dispute with Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar company.

According to terms of the settlement, the Australian bank would give villagers all the profits from the $40 million loan it gave Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar in 2011, under its Cambodian joint venture with the Royal Group. The bank has since exited the Cambodian market.

But, 10 years after losing their land and homes, the affected villagers said that although they won the fight for compensation, it is unlikely to reverse the effects the land grab has had on their families.

In addition to Khorn Khorn’s land, four of her seven children also lost their land, which their mother had given them. All told, the family lost 10 hectares of land.

That leaves Khorn Khorn with a small plot of land given to her by the local pagoda in an informal understanding. But, without any legal documentation, she remains vulnerable to losing the land.

“If I had the land, my children could keep studying, and they would not be laborers like they are now,” she said.

Over the years, Khorn Khorn has attempted to do some farming and raise poultry to support herself and her children. What she earned was not enough, she said, to stop three of her sons from dropping out of school to enter the minimum-wage workforce, earning about $6 per day, to sustain the family.

“[Previously] I did a little bit of rice farming; I raised pigs and cows by myself,” she said. That all stopped when she lost her land.

Land ownership and the lack of titling has been a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, as small plots of land are often the only assets held by a majority of rural families. The government has exacerbated the issue with its willingness to hand over large swathes of land to private enterprises for agriculture and development projects, often at bargain rates.

For many Cambodians, farming on family land is an economic necessity, because there are few jobs in rural provinces. Eighty-five percent of Cambodia’s approximately 16 million people still depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods, according to government statistics. The land also gives people a sense of security, community and family.

With almost no income, Khorn Khorn had to take out two loans for a combined $5,000 from Acleda, one of the country’s largest commercial banks, and AMK, a microfinance institution. Khorn Khorn often relies on her 20-year-old son, Vann Pros, to make the $180 monthly debt payments.

Local nongovernmental organizations Licadho and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut released a report last year highlighting human rights abuses linked to the profit-making microfinance sector, often resulting in Cambodians selling their land, migrating for work, and even putting their children in the workforce to pay these loans.

The agreement with ANZ comes five years after a complaint filed against the bank with a little-known entity within Australia’s treasury department, the nonjudicial Australian National Contact Point (ANCP). It oversees complaints about the behavior of Australian companies overseas based on guidelines for responsible corporate behavior set forth by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Two rights groups, the local NGO Equitable Cambodia
and the U.S.-based Inclusive Development International, filed the complaint on behalf of the 1,200 families. Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, hoped that the compensation would help families rebuild their lives.

But, while the resolution with ANZ was an acknowledgement of the bank’s failure in due diligence, Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar was still to be held accountable, he added.

“This does not in any way replace Phnom Penh Sugar’s responsibility to fully compensate the communities for their damages,” Eang Vuthy said.

While the government has remained quiet on the ANZ resolution, Ly Yong Phat told VOA Khmer last week that he had resolved any land issues at his plantations and that he was unperturbed by the Australian bank’s decision to pay compensation to the families.

“It is the affair of ANZ company. I can’t say anything. They can do anything,” he said.

Cambodian Land Management Ministry spokesperson Seng Loth could not be reached for comment.

Soeung Sokhom, a representative of the affected families, said the government was equally accountable for its role in the hopeless situation many of the families have had to face after losing their land.

He said the basic necessities of rural families, such as farmland, schooling and rice, had been taken away from his community members and, with little in the way of employment opportunities, driven many of them into debt.

“The government always denies. If they want, they [can] solve this for us for a long time,” he said, adding that he lost 1.5 hectares of land. “They said there were no [rights] violations.”

Khorn Khorn can see another generation of her family feeling the effects of the protracted land dispute. Her daughter Vann Saory lives nearby and is facing the same worries as her mother did a decade ago.

Vann Saory, a mother of two, also has $5,000 in loans – again from Acleda and AMK – and struggles to find work. Swallowing her pride, she worked at Phnom Penh Sugar packing processed sugar for about $50 a week, before the company mechanized the production process.

“I felt angry [working for the company],” she said. “But, I had to do it because I didn’t have money.”

Vann Saory said she finds odd jobs to earn income for her two children. She is worried the day will come when she will have to pull her children out of school, much like her three brothers stopped their schooling years ago.

“I am afraid that I can’t earn income anymore and they can’t go to study,” she said.

Khorn Khorn has seen her family’s standard of living decline over the decade and hopes that the compensation they receive will provide some respite.

“It is late, but it will help lift the debt,” she said.