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Friday, August 14, 2009

Cambodian farmers demand stop to land grabs, evictions

By Robert Carmichael


Phnom Penh - 'The land is our rice pot,' a rural villager told a packed hall in the Cambodian capital.

The speaker, Leng Simy, arrived in Phnom Penh this week from a village in western Cambodia, one of 300 villagers representing 15,000 people from across the kingdom who came in a coordinated move to get the government and international donors to listen to their concerns about evictions and land grabs.

The numbers are significant. Organizers said 700,000 hectares of mainly communal land are at risk for this group of petitioners alone. Amnesty International last year estimated that 150,000 people across Cambodia were at risk of being forcibly evicted in land grabs generally perpetrated by the politically powerful, the military and companies awarded land concessions

One purpose of the trip to Phnom Penh was to deliver thumb-printed petitions protesting the land grabs to government ministries, the prime minister, parliament and the national land dispute authority. Another purpose was to be heard, which for people in Cambodia's rural areas is difficult.

Leng Simy told the meeting and media Wednesday that her village had lost its communal land to a company growing cassava and palm oil.

Her experience was a common one, and one shared by Chann Na from Kampot province in southern Cambodia. Clutching the microphone, she told the audience how a company took land that villagers used for grazing cattle. She said she hopes the national government would resolve the problem, but she said she also knows the petition might make no difference.

'If there is no solution, then the representatives from all the provinces and cities will come again to Phnom Penh until at last we have a solution,' Chann Na told the audience. 'And we will not come in ones and twos - we will all come together. I hope that will generate a solution.'

Her comments generated an enthusiastic round of applause from a worried and frustrated audience of villagers. The reason for their concern is easy to understand: More than 80 per cent of Cambodia's 15 million people live in rural areas. To lose your land is to lose your livelihood, and there is no social safety net.

The story of Cambodia's land is not straightforward. Under the catastrophic 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime, private property was abolished and land records destroyed. To this day, more than 90 per cent of the nation's land parcels do not yet have legal title, which makes it easy for the unscrupulous to take them.

And as stability returned in recent years after decades of strife, land prices rocketed. The result is that evictions and land grabs have also soared.

One local human rights group recorded 335 land dispute cases last year alone. And remedies are hard to come by: The courts typically favour those with power, which limits the options for ordinary people, and the military and police are regularly used to put down any dissent.

Loun Sovath, a monk from the western province of Siem Reap, told how villagers in his area had 100 hectares stolen by 'rich and powerful people' earlier this year. During a protest at the disputed site, several villagers were shot and wounded by authorities. Others were arrested 'just as the Khmer Rouge did,' he said, and 11 are now in jail.

'Previously, people would file a complaint with the local and provincial authorities, but they didn't get resolved until they came to Phnom Penh,' Loun Sovath told the hall. '[The government's] solution now is that they arrest more people. I am asking that the government please consider the land issue. This is not a game.'

It is not only the country's majority Khmers who are losing land to a scourge that runs the length and breadth of the kingdom. Soal Nak is from the Jarai tribe, an ethnic minority in the north-eastern province of Ratanakkiri, where land, forests and religion are wrapped together in tribal culture and livelihoods.

'Our people remain worried about losing our land and our forests and our traditional way of life,' he said. 'If we lose our forests or our land, then our traditional ways go, too, and more than that, we will lose our togetherness as a tribal community.'

It was too early to say whether the petitioners' concerns would be addressed, but early signs were not encouraging. The government was caught off-guard by the collaborative effort and was trying to find out whether civil society groups were involved - a classic case of shooting the messenger, said a long-term member of one of these groups.

At least one villager has decided not to return home. Ngou Leang is a representative from a village in the western province of Banteay Meanchey whose commune chief colluded to grab land used by 280 families.

She spoke by phone Wednesday to fellow villagers who had stayed behind. They told her the authorities had come to the village and threatened to arrest everyone for protesting about land issues.

'So for now,' she said, 'I cannot go back home.'


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US Lawmaker in Military-Ruled Burma for Talks

U.S. Senator Jim Webb is in Burma, where he is expected to hold talks with the country's ruling military leader, the first such meeting between a high-ranking U.S. official and General Than Shwe.

The visit comes just days after the United States and other Western nations condemned the military government's order to extend the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Senator Webb - a Democrat from the southern state of Virginia - arrived Friday in Burma's administrative capital of Naypyidaw after a flight from Laos, the first leg of his five-nation tour of Asia. Burmese state television reported Webb met with Prime Minister Thein Sein, but did not give details.

The U.S. lawmaker is scheduled to meet with Than Shwe Saturday. Both the White House and State Department said Friday Webb was not carrying any specific message from the Obama administration.

A few members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy have been asked to travel to Naypyidaw while Webb is there, but it is not clear if they are to meet with the senator. It is also not known if Webb will be able to see Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.

Aung San Suu Kyi was convicted Tuesday of violating her house arrest, after an American man, John Yettaw, swam uninvited to her lakeside home. The pro-democracy leader was ordered to remain under house arrest for another 18 months. Yettaw was also convicted and sentenced to seven years of hard labor and imprisonment.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the past 20 years in some form of detention.

Senator Webb is traveling through the region as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The Vietnam War veteran and former secretary of the Navy will also visit Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia during his Asian tour.
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Hong Kong movie star to visit Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, A famous Hong Kong movie star, Jackie Chan, will visit Cambodia and give a lecture in the university here later this year, the official news agency AKP reported on Friday.

If the schedule will not be changed, Chan will arrive in Cambodia on November 10 and will stay here for three days, according to AKP.

While he is in Cambodia, Chan will give lecture to students at the University of Cambodia the experiences and humanity work that he has achieved and engaged with, and after that he will be awarded with an honorable doctoral degree in humanity, Kao Kim Hourn, president of the University of Cambodia, said earlier.

Meanwhile, Chan will also receive an education award from the University of Cambodia for his humanity's work and activities, Kao added.

According to the plan, Chan will also pay courtesy calls on Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni, and meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Jackie Chan made his first visit to Cambodia in 2004 under the sponsors of the United Nations Children's Fund and the United Nations AIDS Program.

Chan is a keen philanthropist and UNICEF/UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador who has worked tirelessly to champion charitable works and causes.
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Africa, Indonesia, Cambodia -- land rent is fought over

Competing needs -- some need Earth for food, others for money -- plays out constantly around the world. That is, until we recognize the worth of Earth is for us all to share. Such sharing we can implement via geonomics, a sane shift of taxes toward natural resources and subsidies to everybody. We trim, blend, and append three 2009 articles from: (1) the Jakarta Post, Aug 9, on Sulawesi by A. Hajramurni; (2) BBC, Aug 12, on Cambodia by R. Walker; and (3) BBC, Aug 5, on Africa by K. Hunt.

Villagers clash with police in South Sulawesi

Villagers clashed Sunday with local police at a sugarcane plantation field in Takalar regency, South Sulawesi, which belongs to the State Plantation Company (PTPN) XIV, wounding 10 people.

Six of the injured people were civilians and the rest were police officers.

The brawl began when villagers banned PTPN XIV workers from the plantation field in Timbuseng village, North Polongbangkeng district. Villagers claimed they owned the land. Police came to break up the two parties.

Then someone threw a stone to the villagers, who responded by throwing more stones to the police. Police then hunted the villagers who ran to residential areas.

The villagers re-grouped, returned to the plantation field, and fought against the police.

The land rent agreement ended two years ago. PTPN XIV spokesman Bahrun said his firm had a land usage permit, due on 2024 from the Takalar regency administration. “So if anyone claims that they own the land, they should take legal action.”

JJS: Their legal action should downplay ownership and emphasize sharing the rent. When rent is shared broadly, one has less motive to try to monopolize the land.

Cambodia: A land up for sale?

In north eastern Cambodia for the past five years, the Jarai people of Kong Yu village have been fighting for, and losing, their land.

Local officials said they wanted to give part of the land to disabled soldiers. They said if you don't give us the land, we'll take it. So farmers agreed to give them 50 hectares.

The villagers were invited to a party and when many of them were drunk they were asked to put their thumbprints on documents. "Most of us don't know how to read or write, and the chiefs did not explain what the thumbprints were for," said Mr Fil. The villagers later found they had signed away more than 400 hectares -- and the land was not for disabled soldiers, but a private company who began making way for a rubber plantation.

Businesswoman Keat Kolney insists she bought the land legally. She is married to a senior official in the ministry of land management. It is not the only case where those closely connected to senior government figures have taken land from poor Cambodians.

Chamran, a farmer in the area, said “we organized a demonstration. The military police pointed a gun in my stomach and said if you hold another demonstration we will kill you."

Beginning in the 1990s, large swathes of the country's rich forests were bought up by logging companies. Now mining and gas concessions are being granted to insiders. Global Witness says members of the government, right up to the highest levels, are using Cambodia and its assets as their own personal slush fund.

Cambodia's recent stability, following decades of violence, has attracted a rapid boom in tourism and a race for prime real estate on which to build new resorts. Many of the country's beaches have already been bought up.

Rights groups estimate that 30,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in the capital Phnom Penh over the past five years to make way for new developments. The UN estimates hundreds of thousands of Cambodians are now affected by land disputes.

JJS: If landowner, government, and military act in concert, aren’t they really one body, as they’ve always been, since hunting and gathering ended?

Africa investment sparks land grab fear

African land has rarely been associated with financial reward. But population increase, changes in eating habits, and demand for bio-fuels are putting sub-Saharan farmland at a premium worldwide while its prices are the lowest in the world.

Countries short of arable land, such as China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Kuwait, have been seeking agricultural investments in Africa.

South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics was forced to abandon a project to lease one million acres of land in Madagascar to produce corn earlier this year. The country's new president scrapped the deal following criticism that local people had not been consulted, and Daewoo was unsettled by unrest on the island.


LAND PRICES PER HECTARE
Sub-Saharan Africa - $800 to $1000
Argentina/Brazil - $5,000 - $,6000
Poland - $6000
US - $7000
UK - $18,000
Germany - $22,000

"We only operate in counties where we can have clear land title. If we can't get this, or we don't have a 99-year lease from the government, then we won't operate in that country," investor Ms. Payne says.

Investors say their ownership leads to better harvests and creates jobs paying above-average wages.

For now, the vast majority of the food stays in the country in which it is produced although it can be exported.

Since the state often owns the land and favors the investor, they’re prone to push out the poor.

As Africa's land becomes more sought after by international investors, the risk only grows that a continent that has often extended a begging bowl to the world could instead feed its richer neighbors.

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