CHUUK DISTRICT, Kampot (Khmer Times) – Reinforcing a view that land grabbing is now a business for some rural Cambodians, several villagers who were paid Wednesday for ending their squat on a palm oil plantation reappeared 48 hours later, laying claim to different parts.
The land squatting case has received wide publicity because it takes place on Virtus Green Plantations (Cambodia) Pte. Ltd., a plantation controlled here by T. Mohan, owner of Khmer Times. From Malaysia, Mr. Mohan is one of a few foreign investors in Cambodia to publicly denounce land invasions.
Last Wednesday, a Khmer Times story headlined “High Profile Land Dispute Resolved with Deal,” reported that 13 squatter families had surrendered their land claims and accepted compensation.
But, as soon as some squatters got the cash, they reverted to rural extortion. That is the view of park rangers and plantation officials interviewed in this farming frontier district 120 km southwest of Phnom Penh.
“Some villagers, who had collected compensation already from VGP, now continue to encroach elsewhere inside the VGP’s concession in a gamble to try and get compensation – these are illegal actions,” said Uk Chandina, chief ranger for the Bokor National Park. “They are violating the government’s decision in 2011, which provided the ELC license for 80 years to VGP.”
Issued by the Ministry of Environment, part of the 6,718 hectare Economic Land Concession, or ELC, is inside the park. The new encroachments were inside a boundary trench dug under provincial supervision from March to May of this year.
Long Sour, a VGP official, said that up to 37 poles with plastic wrapped around the tips were placed as markers on Friday and Saturday.
“On Friday, our park rangers and police patrols removed several which were planted at dusk Friday,” he said. “Saturday, these re-appeared in a well-coordinated manner in areas where we will be placing machinery on Tuesday to do land preparation work.”
“We removed and destroyed the poles by piling them and setting them ablaze,” he continued. “And on Monday, we will file a complaint with the courts, as the authorities did not mark the land for them. They are trying this as a gamble, to try and get compensation for land which already has been awarded to our Company, VGP Cambodia.”
“The markers were placed inside the boundary marked for VGP and at areas where we will be preparing the land for planting in the coming weeks, land which we painstaking cleared,” the plantation official continued. “If the villagers think that they can blackmail the company into getting more compensation, they assumed wrong. These plots are inside the land marked out for the company and not the villagers.”
Long Sour added that commune and village officials were informed last week of the possibility of more land squatting. But no action was taken.
He said a meeting would take place Wednesday to discuss “measures on the 13 families who have already received compensation and relinquished their claims.”
“If the authorities do not take action, the flood gates for encroachment will open and cannot be controlled because of the inability and the inaction of the local authorities at all levels and the passing of responsibility from them to the park rangers,” he said.
In Brazil, this phenomenon is called the “industry of squatters.” These are groups of peasants who move across the rural landscape, occupying unused farm or ranch land until they are issued land titles or are paid to leave.
Economists warn that if such practices take root here, it will make rural Cambodia unattractive for investment, either by Cambodians or foreigners.