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Land grabbing in Cambodia - the fightback goes international

The Khmer Rouge policy of no ownership has left a legacy of land evictions but displaced residents are taking action and starting to see success

One morning six years ago, Bov Sorphea heard from her neighbours about a strange pipe that was pumping sand into the lake located a few metres from her house. She already knew that the government wanted to develop the Boeung Kak area, a popular neighbourhood north of the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and build a modern complex on the land where her house was situated.

Today, the lake’s 90 hectares have completely disappeared and some machines are already digging in order to put in the foundations of the first buildings. Sorphea’s house, nevertheless, still remains at the same location after years of fighting to keep her house, in one of the rare victories against land grabbing in Cambodia.

Boeung Kak is the one of the most outstanding cases of land grabbing in Cambodia, a country where close to 50,000 people were affected by land disputes in 2014 alone, according to the local NGO LICADHO. The number has been on the rise over the last few years and the number of recorded cases has doubled since 2012, says LICADHO. In Boeung Kak alone, 4,552 families were threatened with eviction after the government signed, in 2007, a 99-year lease agreement – the maximum length permitted in law - with Shukaku Inc., which is owned by the powerful Cambodian senator Lao Meng Khin.

Cambodian authorities had encountered little resistance to the evictions in previous years. Nevertheless, Boeung Kak’s residents, including Bov Sorphea, decided to fight back. Women led the protests and Boeung Kak became a major headache for the Cambodian government.

“Women are leading the movement because if men were leading it, the police would more easily use violence against them,” says Sorphea, who became one of the representatives of the community. “Our voice has been heard through the media, NGOs, social media and also in countries abroad.”

The campaign worked and it forced the government to reach an agreement. In August 2011, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, signed a sub-decree granting residents still living in the area 12.44 hectares of land and the promise of a land title. Today, 632 of the 794 people who still reside in Boeung Kak already have a land title and many of them have started the necessary process to get their rights recognised.

The roots of land disputes in Cambodia date back to the Khmer Rouge regime, a brutal communist government that ruled the country between 1975 and 1979, decimating the population and abolishing all private property. Khmer Rouges emptied the cities and most Cambodians were displaced far from their homes. Along the way, all the documents were lost or destroyed.

After the fall of the regime, many Cambodians returned to their former houses and the land was managed by communes until 1989, when the first land titles were given out. Nevertheless, land titling remained rare until 2001, when the new Land Law allowed any Cambodian citizen who had lived on a plot of land for longer than five years to apply for a land title.

“We have issued 3.8 million land titles so far,” says Suon Sopha, deputy director of the General Department of Cadastre and Geography at the Cambodia Ministry of Land Management. “This is 55% of our target of 7 million land titles. We are very proud of it.”

A struggle reaching the international community

Many activists and NGOs have denounced the widespread land grabbing that affects both urban and rural populations, plaguing Phnom Penh slums and villages alike. The scope of these seizures is so large that it has been considered a crime against humanity by the London-based law firm Global Diligence. According to Global Diligence’s estimates, more than 770,000 people in Cambodia - roughly 6% of the population- have lost their land in mass confiscations over the past two decades, “as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, pursuant to a state policy,” the law firm stated in a communication filed last October before the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court requesting an investigation.

“There is very strong evidence of human rights violations [regarding land grabbing] in Cambodia,” says Richard J Rogers, the lawyer who submitted the claim and who is now preparing a supplementary communication to update the first request with information on land grabbing that has occurred since October 2014, with a focus on the impact on women’s livelihoods.

“There is a triangle of power in Cambodia that allows people who have power to take the land from people who don’t have power”, explains Rogers. The communication filed does not name any member of the government of the economic and military elite but “it lays out the whole system,” he says. If successful, the case at the ICC could set a legal precedent that will allow for the prosecution of land grabbers and set a precedent to limit the rapid growth of the illegal confiscation of land across the world.

However, the battle at the international level started in Cambodia.The Boeung Kak community itself filed a request before the World Bank for a land-titling project that was supposed to help them obtain a property deed. In August 2011, the World Bank recognised in a statement, released after an investigation into the Boeung Kak case, that it had failed to secure their rights.

“The claims of the Boeung Kak Lake community are serious […] .The evictions took place in violation of the Bank’s policy on involuntary resettlement and resulted in grave harm to the affected families and community,” said Roberto Lenton, chairperson of its investigation panel, as quoted in the statement. After the investigation, the World Bank imposed a ban on loans to Cambodia that has not been lifted since.

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The Boeung Kak residents have not been the only ones to appeal to the international community to assert their rights in the face of powerful interests. One of the most active communities in the search of justice abroad has been the 200 families evicted from Srae Ambel, in the southern province of Koh Kong, after their land was given to the Thai firm KSL Co. in 2006 to plant sugar cane. Having lost the land where they used to grow their rice and vegetables, the residents of Srae Ambel tried first to get their land back through the Cambodian courts but they received no answer from them.

The Blood Sugar campaign claims European trade policy is fuelling land grabbing.

With the help of several NGOs, they started the Blood Sugar campaign, an international campaign with a focus on Europe, where the sugar produced in the grabbed land was being sold. The campaign denounced the European “everything but arms” policy, a trade scheme that waves taxes to imported products from the Least Developed Countries - including Cambodia - claiming it fuels land grabbing in the country. The claims led to the opening of an investigation by the European Union into the issue, but no conclusion has been released yet.

The European Union was not the only target of Srae Ambel’s residents. The campaign also pointed at the final destination of the sugar, the UK-based company Tate & Lyle, which was importing large volumes of sugar from Cambodia. They first tried to appeal to Bonsucro, a responsible sugar initiative that had Tate & Lyle as a member and Teng Kao, one of the leaders of the group, travelled to London in 2012 to meet the head of the organisation.

“I went there to ask them to mediate with Tate & Lyle and ask them to give us our land back,” says the small man whose hands and face are eroded by hours of farming. Bonsucro finally decided to suspend Tate & Lyle’s membership when the company refused to compensate the villagers, but the measure did not lead to any response from the British company.

The villagers looked then to the UK courts and filed a lawsuit at the High Court of Justice in London in 2013 demanding millions in damages. The lawsuit made the British company react and it started negotiations with the Cambodian villagers.

“Tate & Lyle has been negotiating with the villagers since January 2015, along with KSL Co. They agreed in principle to pay the villagers [compensation] and KSL Co. has given some land back to the villagers,” says Vuthy Man of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), an NGO helping the victims with the legal procedures to reclaim their land.

Public opposition to land grabbing in Cambodia has also forced the government to concede some improvements for the communities. In May 2012, the prime minister signed a directive declaring a moratorium on new Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). The directive also announced a systematic review of ELCs that would cancel those agreements that do not comply with the law.

LICADHO complains nevertheless that the government has not disclosed the full extent of its grand land records and that it is not possible to verify that no new ELCs are being granted. In January 2015, the Cambodian government stated that the ELCs were affecting 1.8 million hectares and that 228 companies were enjoying the lease agreements, after 94 projects had been cancelled in recent years.

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