A report on a recent visit to Dak Dam commune in Mondulkiri province in the northeast of Cambodia, where the Phnong indigenous people have been protesting against a Chinese-Cambodian company’s tree plantations.
By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 113 December 2006.
“All villagers understand the need to protect the forest. We can’t live without it.” The speaker is a villager from Dak Dam Commune in Mondulkiri province in the north-east of Cambodia. “Now our life is more difficult,” he said.
About 20 of us (from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and the UK) sat with villagers in the shade of a large tree near the village school. We were on our way to the “Mekong Regional Conference on Tree Plantations” which would take place in Kratie over the next two days. We had travelled to Dak Dam to hear how the indigenous Phnong community is struggling to keep its land against Wuzhishan, a Chinese-Cambodian company with close links to the Cambodian government. In August 2004, the Cambodian government awarded permission in principle to Wuzhishan to establish a 199,999 hectare concession with 10,000 hectares approved immediately for trial and commercial planting.
“The company increased its area of land to 20,000 hectares,” a villager told us. Another told us the company had taken 30,000 hectares. Neither Wuzhishan nor the government has given villagers a map of the plantation operations. “People asked why the company could take the land,” a villager said. “We struggle against the company because we need the land for farming. We have complained for two years to this company.”
Villagers grow no paddy rice, but cultivate upland rice on rotational swidden fields. The company had planted on some of villagers’ swidden fields. This year, there had been a drought in the area and some rice was destroyed.
“The company cut down all the trees on our land, including the spirit trees,” one of the villagers said. “Our people are suffering as a result. The company also destroyed the land we use for burying our ancestors. The company came to cut the big trees. We never cut these trees. On the top of the hill we grew fruit trees. The company cut all the trees and now we have no fruit. We used to sell the fruit in the market to buy food.”
The impact on culture since the company arrived in their land was a recurring theme during the meeting. “The trees and land were respected by our culture. As indigenous people we believe it is important to live together in a certain way. There has been a change in the community’s culture since the arrival of the company,” a villager explained.
“Children and girls have been exploited by the company workers,” added another. “Young girls have fallen in love with workers and then the company moves to another area. We are afraid of the workers. They drink wine and beer and do bad things.”
“The government has forbidden burning the grasslands,” a villager said, “but we need to burn to make the grasslands better for grazing.” The company hired workers to monitor the villagers who attempted to burn the company’s trees or land.
A villager told us how the company uses chemicals to clear the grass in the areas it plants. “The chemicals ran into the rivers and streams. This is our drinking water. The chemicals killed fish in the streams.”
Villagers protested to local authorities about the company’s operations. The result was heavy-handed repression. Villagers were prevented from leaving the province, to go to Phnom Penh to attend workshops, for example. When hundreds of villagers walked into Sen Monorom to ask the District Governor to address their problems, they were met with water cannons. The authorities told them to return to their villages and promised that they would resolve the situation in a couple of days. “But nothing has happened,” pointed out a villager. “The authorities said that this is development of our country. But this is not development.”
Earlier this year, villagers arranged a meeting to discuss the problems with Wuzhishan, but no one from the company turned up. “One of our villagers tried to meet with the company in Phnom Penh, but this came to nothing. The company never responds to our complaints.”
Sawaad, a farmer from northeast Thailand and one of the participants in the Mekong plantations conference, spoke to the villagers. “Fifteen years ago in Thailand, we faced the same problems,” he said. “We did not have enough experience when Phoenix Pulp and Paper started planting eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus causes problems with water, the environment and livelihoods. Land rights is a big issue. Before we knew that there was a problem, it was already there. At first people wrote letters. It was the same as here. We sent lots of letters but no one replied. Then we started to form groups and expanded to hundreds of people.”
Sawaad smiled as he explained how farmers in Thailand organised to resist the spread of plantations on their land. “People have to find their own ways to put pressure on the government. In Thailand, we set up the Northeast Small Farmers Network and the Assembly of the Poor. We held rallies to protest and to negotiate with the government. In the past 15 years I don’t know exactly how many protests there have been, but it’s probably between 300 and 500. In 1997, the Assembly of the Poor held a protest for 99 days outside Government House in Bangkok. Sometimes the protests involved hundreds of people, sometimes tens of thousands. We need to rely on ourselves, on our movements. We can’t rely on anyone else.”
One of the Phnong villagers asked how the government reacted to the protests. “The government did everything it could to stop us,” Sawaad replied. “I have been in jail eight times. But we were able to work as a network, not just small groups of people. So if the government attacked one person, or jailed one person, the network just carried on working.”
We drove away from the village through the rolling hills. We could see the company’s pine trees planted in small, cleared circles dotted over the landscape. As it started to rain, I remembered the words of one of the villagers: “We will keep complaining to the government until the government gives us our land back.”