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Cambodia's Displaced: Can Canada Make a Difference?

As farmers and city dwellers are uprooted by developments, advocates call on CIDA to rise to their defence.

Jared Ferrie 2 Oct 2009TheTyee.ca

Jared Ferrie is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh. Read Jared Ferrie's previous Tyee stories here.

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Workers demolish house on prime real estate in Phnom Penh during a forced eviction on July 2. Photo: Jared Ferrie.

As far back as their history goes, the Bunong lived semi-nomadic lives, cultivating small plots of land for a couple years at a time before moving on to allow the soil to regenerate. That came to an end when the United States began carrying out its secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969.

"We fled to Vietnam and we lived in camps there," recalled Prap Tuch, an elderly member of the Bunong ethnic minority.

His people stayed and escaped the horror that was to follow -- the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed as many as two million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The Bunong finally returned to their mountainous homeland in 1986.

But they now face a new threat to their way of life.

Cambodia's government has been granting concessions to companies eager to extract the country's natural resources. Land occupied by the Bunong is being cleared to make way for rubber plantations run by Socfin, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Bollore Group, in partnership with a Cambodian company, KCD.

Prap is just one of an estimated 150,000 Cambodians threatened with forced eviction throughout the country, according to Amnesty International. A real estate boom in the capital, Phnom Penh, has seen thousands displaced -- illegally, say land law experts -- to make way for property developments. The government recently pulled out of a World Bank financed program that aimed to halt forced evictions by sorting out land title in rural areas.

Advocates for the Bunong and other displaced groups say Canada could be an influential voice on their behalf because the Canadian International Development Agency is donor and technical advisor to the Cambodian government's land reform program.

But as more and more Cambodians are forced from their homes, Canada's response so far has been official silence.

'Three unacceptable options'

The Bunong have been offered three options: compensation, relocation or the opportunity to produce rubber on small, family-run plantations.

Prap said none of them were particularly attractive. He would prefer to produce some rubber to sell to the company while still maintaining land that would allow him to farm his traditional crops of rice, fruits and vegetables.

"I don't refuse development. We need to live as other people," he said. "But if we lose the fields, we lose our culture."

Furthermore, he said, his land has not been measured in order to assess compensation, even though he has been forced out to make way for a rubber plantation.

"Allowing people to choose between three unacceptable options for compensation is not meaningful consultation," said David Pred, country director of Bridges Across Borders, which advocates on land rights issues. "The company should start by listening to the affected communities and understanding what their needs and development aspirations are."

Phillip Monnin, who heads Socfin's operations here, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

'Maybe... some errors'

Eric Beugnot, Cambodia director of the French Development Agency (AFD), said Socfin has launched a study to determine the social and environmental impacts of the plantation.

"They recognized maybe they have made some errors, some mistakes," he said. "They included in the study what has been done and eventually corrective action."

AFD is evaluating a $2.5 million plan to help "smallholders." The project would encourage the company to integrate more family-run rubber plantations into its overall operation.

"That could serve as a model for economic concessions," said Beugnot, adding that the company has no obligation to pursue such a model; it could just as easily develop its concession as a private rubber plantation.

'Laws ignored'

Daniel King, a lawyer with the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said the Socfin-KCD deal is murky, and information provided to the community is often conflicting.

"The actual clearing of land by Socfin-KCD has not always corresponded to this information," he said.

In fact, he said, the deal may be illegal under Cambodian law, which requires an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment prior to granting an economic land concession (ELC). Copies of those assessments have been requested from the relevant ministries, but have not been provided.

"They may not have been conducted prior to the granting of the ELC or the clearing of land," he said.

King was also skeptical of the French Development Agency's role, suggesting the danger of French taxpayer dollars being used to fund the "social aspects" of an illegal land deal.

"Its partnership with Socfin-KCD in that endeavour could be seen as supporting an ELC that is likely to be illegal under national and international human rights law," he said.

Beugnot said the feasibility study, which AFD requires if it is to provide funding to Socfin-KCD, began weeks ago and will take three months to complete.

In the meantime, those affected by the land concession have few options. On June 19, members of the Bunong held traditional ceremonies to appease ancestral spirits for the loss of forest they consider sacred, and to curse the rubber companies.

Recently, out of desperation, Prap travelled to Phnom Penh with other members of his community to raise awareness of their plight.

"I don't know how to get the land back. Now I just stay and wait and maybe my family will starve," he said.

Decades of displacement

Cambodia has seen years of massive displacement beginning with Richard Nixon's bombing campaign, which he authorized in secret without consent of Congress. In an attempt to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the border with Vietnam, the U.S. dropped an estimated 540,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia in four years, which strengthened support for Khmer Rouge rebels. The bombs killed as many as 500,000 people and displaced about 30 per cent of the population.

Millions more fled the countryside in the following years as a civil war raged between U.S.-backed government troops and the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, they emptied Phnom Penh of almost all of its inhabitants, forcing them and millions of others throughout the country into labour camps. After Vietnamese and Cambodian forces ousted the regime in 1979, refugees flooded back into the capital seeking shelter wherever they could find it.

Still more Cambodians languished in camps in Thailand as Cambodian and Vietnamese troops battled the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups. The remaining Khmer Rouge were finally defeated in 1998 and refugees returned.

New era, same problem

Decades of forced migration have resulted in a tangled web of land ownership claims. In an attempt to address the issue, the government passed a law in 2001 stating that those who had occupied a piece of land continuously for at least five years could claim legal title. But Cambodian courts, which critics say are notoriously corrupt, have rarely enforced that law.

Instead of bombs, bullets and landmines, Cambodians are now forced from their homes by powerful economic interests.

In Phnom Penh, property prices shot up 100 per cent in 2007, according to a report by the International Monetary Fund. Government officials and other elites have cashed in on the boom, along with international investors, pushing people from their homes in order to develop the land. A local organization, STT, estimates that 11 per cent of the capital's population has been forcibly relocated since 1991, with major evictions still planned. In rural areas, corrupt officials also partner with international investors to exploit natural resources, often forcing people off land that they have a strong legal claim to.

Land reform program scrapped

On Sept. 4, the Cambodian government terminated World Bank financing for the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP), which has issued 1.1 million land titles in rural areas since 2002.

During a speech on Sept. 7, Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, said cooperating with the World Bank on the program "was difficult because it was complicated and had too many conditions."

The move came after the World Bank, under pressure from advocacy groups, issued critical statements about LMAP and forced evictions.

A July 13 World Bank review of LMAP stated: "procedures for state land classification... were only partly implemented." The bank also noted "a particular disconnect between institutional, legal and policy achievements and insecurity of land tenure for the poor, especially in urban areas, and indigenous peoples."

In plain language, the bank meant that working with government officials to devise elaborate systems for assigning land ownership has not prevented land grabbing, despite whatever laws or regulations are put in place.

Or as Pred, of Bridges Across Borders, put it: "Donors to Cambodia's land sector have tried to provide technical solutions to political problems... powerful people are able to grab the land of the poor and vulnerable majority with total impunity"

Yet, a World Bank spokesman in Phnom Penh downplayed the government's decision, noting its promise to continue the process on its own.

"The World Bank welcomes the government's commitments to continue its reforms of the land sector," said Bou Saroeun.

Pred expressed no confidence in the government's promises.

"State land has been totally mismanaged by the Cambodian government even with World Bank and other donor involvement," he said.

Canada's role

Along with the World Bank, LMAP was supported by Canada, Finland and Germany. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is also co-facilitator, along with the Cambodian government, on the Technical Working Group on Land and it holds a seat in the Ministry of Lands.

Critics have been urging Canada to use its leverage as a donor country to do more to stop the illegal expropriation of land.

"CIDA has so far been unwilling to challenge the status quo in order to address the real problems with land in Cambodia," said Pred. "Unless they do so, in a coordinated manner with other donors, there will be little return from the investments of its aid dollars."

Ironically, Pred noted, when donors refuse to stand up to governments that break their own laws, "the aid runs the risk of legitimizing the system."

CIDA's representative in Cambodia said she was not authorized to speak to reporters and directed questions to CIDA's media department in Canada, which did not respond to e-mailed questions.

On July 2, a group of 11 donors and aid agencies issued a statement calling on the government to halt forced evictions "until a fair and transparent mechanism for resolving land disputes is put in place."

The signatories included the World Bank and the United Nations, along with embassies including those of Britain, the U.S. and Australia.

"The Canadian International Development Agency, which has a seat in the Ministry of Lands, was conspicuously absent from that statement," said Daniel King the CLEC lawyer, "If I was a Canadian I'd be asking questions.  [Tyee]

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