Hundreds of families with claims to nearly 100 hectares of farmland in Svay Rieng province are protesting against provincial authorities who locals say are forcing them to accept a low price for land compensation to make way for a canal restoration project.
The ongoing Kampong Chrey canal project, which is under management of the Ministry of Water Resources, has affected 120 families over more than 99 hectares in two communes in Svay Chrum district. Local community members said the expansion and rehabilitation of the canal started in 2009 but has been delayed due to farmers’ protests. However, water management officials contend the affected areas are already state-owned and that compensation is just for crops, not actual land purchases. Officials also say they are not expanding the canal but merely renovating it.
At any rate, provincial authorities have reportedly offered compensation of just 900 riel per square meter of land, or $0.23, which local farmers have rejected.
Yos Sophoan, a farmer from the Samaki Chek Meas Community in the Chek village of Chhoeuteal commune said her family has been farming on their plot of land since 1982.
“If the government provides just 900 riel per square meter, people cannot accept because the people depend on this farmland for livelihood,” she said. “When we have no land, life seems to be in turmoil, it has nothing to rely on like no legs and hands.”
On Monday hundreds of farmers protested against authorities who forced them to accept compensation. The farmers continued to gather on Tuesday, demanding higher prices, but Sophoan said the district governor that same morning had forced some people to sign a contract to accept the price and threatened others not to do any protesting.
In Soth, who is the president of the Samaki Chek Meas Community farming group and holds 0.70 hectares of land, said people are asking for $3 per square meter.
“[We] made the request to authorities, but they have denied and said that the people just want more compensation,” she said.
Pol Sy, another farmer who lives in Thnong village, said authorities do not solve the problem for the people and have only threatened and forced people to accept the smaller compensation package.
“If I lose the land, it will seriously affect my family’s livelihood,” Pol Sy said. “I depend on 2 hectares of land for rice crops to feed children and earn some money.”
Svay Chrum district Governor Hem Sarith could not be reached for comment, but Chhoeuteal commune Chief Lon Sony pushed back on the farmers’ claims to own the plots, saying the area has been forage land since the Pol Pot era and that no one has a title yet.
“This irrigation project provides benefits to all people in the area and [even] for those who refuse,” Sony said.
Kim Savuoth, director of Svay Rieng province’s Water Resources Department, echoed this, telling CamboJA that local people have long been using land that is state property.
“People who have been cultivating on the land for many years think that it belongs to them, we are now dealing with the common interests, not just for a group of people,” he said.
Savuoth also said that authorities have no plans to expand the canal and the state has no money to do so.
“We’re just restoring and renovating the reservoir, we have no ability to expand it,” he said. “The state will provide compensation to the people based on cultivated crops and not the land.”
Savuoth said the Kampong Chrey basin is part of the Vaiko River system and has helped irrigate tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in both Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces. The reservoir was once restored during the Pol Pot era and is now being rehabilitated.
Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, said smallholders depend on land for their livelihoods and that compensation schemes must account for that.
“The government’s development is to benefit and promote the livelihoods of farmers, but if we look at the picture of this [project] that forces people to lose their farmland, it does not reflect the purpose of development,” Savoeun said. “If only restoration, it would not affect the people, and people are willing to cut part of the land for an expansion project. But the authorities want to take it all.”
Thol Sek, another farmer in Chhoeuteal commune, said that 900 riel per square meter will not be able for people to buy land elsewhere for farming.
“If I lose this land, my children will have nothing to eat,” she said.