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On Coast, Chinese Development Pushes Thousands From Land

In this Oct. 6, 2012 photo, a Chinese engineer, left, walks by a fence with Chinese slogans reading: Safety first, highest quality and quantity near an entrance of a dam construction site by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation on the Tatay River in Koh Kong province, some 210 kilometers (130 miles) west of Phnom Penh.
KOH KONG - Thousands of villagers in a remote district of the coastal province of Koh Kong have been evicted or are facing eviction in the face of a Chinese resort development project.

Some families have moved unwillingly to relocation sites. But others are refusing to leave, setting the stage for another land dispute.

The villagers are facing eviction from a 36,000-hectare resort project by the Chinese Union Development Group, which holds a 99-year lease on the land.

Chinese hydrodam developments have already damaged major parts of Koh Kong, home to the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia’s richest source of biodiversity. And the Union Development resort adds to the difficulties facing residents of the province, which has also seen major evictions and disputes rising from the growth of a massive sugar plantation, as well as real estate, commercial and agricultural projects.

Returning from fishing in a nearby stream in Tani village, Kirisakor district, 63-year-old Pev Leav said he has refused to move away from his family’s 1-hectare plot of land, on which they grow cashew, coconuts and mangos.

“At the new location, there is nothing, no coconut, no mango trees, no rice fields, nothing but forest,” he told VOA Khmer. Besides, he said, if he moves, he’ll likely not even live long enough to see newly planted trees bear fruit.

More than 1,100 families in 13 villages across Kirisakor and Botumsakor districts are facing displacement from the $3.8-billion development project, according to rights organizations. Most of them have already been forced to move to relocation sites. Only a few dozen families, like those of Pev Leav, have refused to move.

Among the stalwarts is Yi Linda, a neighbor of his.

“I want to live in my birthplace,” she said. “But if the company really develops the area and I have to leave, there must be proper compensation for the villagers, not $250, which cannot even buy enough rice to feed my eight-member family for a month. It’s as if the plantations I have been cultivating all my life would be given away, so how can I feed my children?”

Union Development is now building a main road for its resort project, which would include a five-star hotel and casino and a seaport, based on its master plans.

With the Cambodian government’s approval, the company would compensate each affected family, from a few hundred dollars to $8,000, depending on their land.

Union Development’s Cambodia representative, Li Zhi Xuan, could not be reached for comment. A Cambodian assistant of his in Phnom Penh said he was not available for interviews.

However, In Sophy, deputy governor of Kirisakor district, said the compensation is acceptable.

“It is proper, because by the government’s policy, if their land has no plantation at all, they would get just a few hundred [dollars], and if it is full of plantations, they would get compensated accordingly,” she said.

Each of the relocated families was also provided with a new wooden house and 2.5 hectares of new land to live and work on, she said.

Still, some villagers were not convinced by the compensation packages, saying the relocation site lacks water, electricity and other basic infrastructure, such as schools, pagodas and health centers.

Yean Nov is a farmer and fisherman in Chamlong Kor village, another affected community.

“I don’t understand how the authorities want to develop the country,” he said. “They take people to live in places where there is nothing to eat. Why are they taking away Khmer land that the people have been working on and give it to others? I really don’t understand what the government is thinking.”

Prak Thuon, a fisherman facing forced eviction in Peam Kay village, said he would not move.

“I would rather die here than work on the new land without anything to eat,” he said.