Land Grab: Foreign Firms Drive Cambodians from Farms

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Andreas Lorenz, Nov 27, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

Each year, foreign agricultural corporations deprive thousands of Cambodian farmers of their fields — with the government’s help. Human rights groups claim German taxpayer money is used to fund a program that benefits land grabbers.

Everyone in the Cambodian village of Chouk remembers what happened on the morning of May 19, 2006, when bulldozers appeared on National Route 48, which cuts through the town. Men from a Thai company, Khon Kaen Sugar Industry PCL, presented the Cambodian villagers with documents and said: “This land now belongs to us.”  

Dozens of farmers tried to stop the bulldozers when they began leveling their rice fields. The police arrived at the scene, shots were fired and a female protester was injured. A barbed-wire fence now surrounds the fields, which have since become a sugarcane plantation. Farmer Teng Kao, 53, winds his way through fences, jumps across ditches and finally points to a spot in the distance. “Back there,” he says. “That was where my fields were.”
Two hundred families from Chouk lost their livelihood that day. “We aren’t poor – we’re very poor,” says farmer Chea Sok. “I can no longer afford three meals a day.” Many young people have left Chouk, with some becoming migrant workers in Thailand and Malaysia.

Many Cambodians have suffered the same fate as the villagers from Chouk. Companies and privileged elites, often members of the ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party under Prime Minister Hun Sen, are taking possession of fields and forested areas.

The companies, often foreign, receive “economic land concessions” from the government when they need land for plantations and factories. Cambodian non-governmental organizations estimate that about 400,000 people have been driven out in this fashion since 2003.

Great Injustice: … //

… Veil of Secrecy: … //

… German Role:

  • Germany is assisting the Cambodian government in developing the agency. Land registry experts with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) have advised Cambodian officials since 2002. But now “the Germans have become part of the problem” says Eang Vuthy of the NGO Equitable Cambodia.
  • Other civil rights activists and German aid workers accuse GIZ of glossing over the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen is merely using the project to create the impression that the underhanded land grabs are legal, and they argue that he has no intention of fairly distributing land.
  • For instance, the Germans are not permitted to travel out into the countryside to verify that the assignment of land titles is in fact being implemented. According to Vuthy, Premier Hun Sen would consider it interference in his country’s internal affairs if the Germans were to review individual cases to ensure that their project is indeed creating justice. “But the Germans ought to know what is being done with their tax money,” says Vuthy.
  • GIZ Regional Director Adelbert Eberhardt’s office is located in a building near the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. He’s familiar with the criticism of his program. Nevertheless, he says, “if you want to make anything happen, you have to work together with government agencies. This makes you vulnerable. It’s a balancing act we have to put up with.” But Eberhardt notes that the benefits of the program outweigh its drawbacks. “We will create legal certainty for 6 million people,” he says. “Two million have it already.”
  • The Foreign Ministry in Berlin also defends the cooperation with Hun Sen. In a closed-door discussion about the land program with experts in Phnom Penh, a diplomat pointed out that the German government cannot force the prime minister to do anything. “Constructive engagement” is better than terminating the cooperative arrangement with Hun Sen. “We can’t achieve everything everywhere at the same time,” the diplomat says.

EU Resolution:

  • Manfred Hornung of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, who works a few kilometers away from Eberhardt’s office, says: “The people at GIZ have no proof of the 2 million land titles. After all, they haven’t been out in the countryside, and they have no idea about what’s going on.”
  • The European Union’s approach is even more controversial, because it indirectly facilitates the land grabs. In 2009, Brussels granted Cambodia the right to export sugar to the EU duty free. But that only exacerbated the problem, says Evi Schueller, an American lawyer with the Cambodian human rights organization Licadho. “Thousands suffer when they lose their land to make way for sugarcane plantations,” she says.
  • In 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the sugar business, criticizing what it calls “serious human rights violations in connection with land concessions.”
  • However, the European Commission refuses to suspend Cambodia’s duty-free access privilege for all of it exports. “It doesn’t recognize the report by the UN special rapporteur,” says Schueller. “Instead, it wants one from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. That’s absurd.”

(full text).


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