Pheng Krong worked one day sawing at a piece of wood for construction of a new house. The 37-year-old farmer of the Brov ethnic group had plans to replace his small wooden house in Ta Gnach village, in Ratanakkiri’s Ta Veng district. What he did not have plans to do, however, is work on a patch of farmland 2 kilometers down the road.
That’s because that land has been overtaken by a rubber plantation concession.
“I no longer develop on my land because I feel I can’t live here longer,” he told VOA Khmer recently. “The villagers here do not care about planting or farming on their land any more because it will be a waste of time.”
Pheng Krong and other members of 36 Brov families say they will have to clear more forest land to begin farming again. And they are not alone.
The problem of land loss is not limited to Pheng Krong’s village, but it has spread to other villages here in the province. Residents here say they are increasingly loosing long-term farmland to concessions for plantations of rubber and cashew. Thousands of families in this province depend on that land for the livelihoods. But more and more companies are establishing themselves on that land.
Romam Ting, a representative of 41 Jarai ethnic minorities in Ang Daung Meas district, 40 kilometers from Ta Gnach, said villagers are losing out to concessions.
“When companies come, they said they have concessions from the government to grow rubber trees, they have to clear the land,” he said. “When they start clearing the land, they clear our communal land that we’ve used for planting. When we protest, they say the state has granted them the land, so it’s theirs.”
That’s a potential problem for a province with 150,000 residents, mostly populated by minority tribes Phnong, Jarai, Kachork, Brov, Tavet, Kreung, Long Tumpuon. The hill tribes believe in spirits that dwell in the forests and mountains, and their lives revolve around mixed farming, fishing and the forest.
Dam Chanthy, director of the Highlander’s Association, which helps raise awareness of indigenous people on land rights issues here, said agro-industrial plantations have overlapped the forests and communal land indigenous people traditionally use to earn a living.
“Companies just work on the land without consultation with the affected communities, so the people are now facing a big threat as they need more land for their community farms,” she said in a phone interview.
At least 14 companies have applied for land concessions in the northeastern province, but only one of them has been registered as a contracted and validated company. But, the villagers say more companies are operational, and most of them overlap community land.
“Some companies do plant some young rubber trees, but they take no care of them,” one hill tribe member who asked not to be named said. “They just cut down the trees in the forest and take away valuable timber.”
The concession practice is having a big impact on the forest here.
Around 8,000 square kilometers of land in the province is covered by forest, but tens of thousands of hectares have been deforested, local environmental organizations say.
And that’s only the beginning. Eighty-five companies have been granted land concessions for more than 950,000 hectares in 16 provinces, according to government figures.
The UN’s office for human rights in Cambodia said in 2007 the concessions are having a devastating impact on the indigenous communities. More than 50,000 hectares in Ratnakkiri alone have been given over to concessions, according to the UN.
And when people lose their land, they are pushed farther into the forest, said Pen Bunna, a rights coordinator for Adhoc. The government needs to implement the existing forestry law and concession laws in order to protect the indigenous communities, he said.
Officials say they understand the problem and are working to solve it.
Pao Ham Phan, the provincial governor, said authorities have prevented land clearance on sacred forests and community farms.
“When there are overlaps with the community land, we cut away that plot of land from the concession,” he recently told reporters in his office. “Where the forests are still in good condition, we don’t grant concession rights to the companies and we also ask the companies to protect them,” he said.
Some concession requests for 10,000 hectares are reduced to 4,000 to 6,000 hectares, he said. “This shows that the government has taken care of forest sustainability.”
Meanwhile, other problems stem from villager expansions of farmland by clearing more forest.
“The target of the people is to expand their farms to meet the need of their increasing family members, so it will affect the forest as well,” he said. “The forest has many enemies.”