PHNOM PENH, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When
bulldozers arrived in Cambodia's rural Chi Khor Krom commune,
farmer Phao Nheung said she had no idea why until they ploughed
into the rice fields and she realised they had come for her
Residents of the ramshackle community on the highway about
160 km (100 miles) west of Phnom Penh say they were never told
any details of the deal the government had signed with investors
who wanted to grow sugarcane on the land.
"We lost everything. Now we don't have enough to eat,"
Nheung, 40, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
One of more than a dozen farmers who say they lost their
land in the 2009 transaction, Nheung said she was left with just
one of her five hectares (12.4 acres) of land.
Investment in land has played a key role in reducing poverty
and generating economic growth in Cambodia, but campaign groups
say too many large land deals are not made public.
Land investments signed without input from residents who do
not know the terms of the deals have been occurring across
Cambodia for decades and have displaced more than 770,000 people
since 2000, human rights lawyers say.
Between 1993 and 2013, more than 10 percent of Phnom Penh's
population was displaced to make way for re-development projects
as rapid economic growth transformed the capital.
Now campaign groups are pushing the government and private
investors to release details of contracts for large land deals.
Residents must know details of promises to investors so they
can hold companies to account, said Tek Vannara, director of the
NGO Forum on Cambodia, a rights group in the capital.
This will also help them follow up on promises of jobs,
environmental monitoring or compensation such as alternative
land plots for displaced farmers, he said.
The government had begun publishing details of contracts
online, as well as the location of land concessions but stopped
doing so in 2009, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We don't know why the government stopped putting this
information on their website," he said. "We need transparent
(contract) information for consulting with communities."
The government publishes notice of new land deals in its
official Royal Gazette, but extracting detailed information
about the terms of contracts is difficult, said Am Sokha from
the Community Legal Education Center, a Phnom Penh-based NGO.
"The local people never get documents," Sokha told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This fuels rumours and speculation in areas where deals are
signed, adding to confusion for villagers and making it harder
for them to mount a defence against displacement, Sokha said.
Cambodia's Ministry of Commerce, a government body normally
responsible for managing contracts with investors, did not
respond to interview requests made in writing or in person.
However, other government officials have said the number of
land conflicts has been falling recently in Cambodia, where the
state is working to mediate disputes and continues to provide
millions of new formal title deeds to Cambodians.
This observation has been backed by rights groups.
In a bid to provide information to local residents, legal
scholars and activists have tried to locate contracts for land
deals - sometimes with the help of whistleblowers.
Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task
Force, a campaign group working with Cambodians displaced by
urban projects, said he experienced this situation first-hand.
When more than 3,000 families faced eviction to make way for
luxury apartments in the capital's Boeung Kak Lake, Phearum's
group helped residents fight for new houses or compensation for
their properties, which lacked official title deeds.
Under the contract between the government and the developer,
residents were initially given three options: $800 cash
compensation, housing on the city outskirts or upgrading of
their homes near the site in central Phnom Penh.
But Phearum said officials never informed residents about
the third possibility.
"Someone working for the government leaked us the contract
and we analysed it with our lawyers," he said. "The problem is
often a lack of clear information."
Once campaigners realised that staying near the site was an
option in the contract, they organised more protests. Residents
demanded to stay and the government offered higher compensation
to families who had continued to resist.
Eventually, most former residents of Boeung Kak Lake - where
luxury buildings are still under construction - accepted new
land or compensation from the government, he said.
The lack of public information on contracts for large land
deals extends beyond Cambodia, said Jesse Coleman, a researcher
at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) in New
York, who tracks the transactions.
Coleman said 28 countries disclose some information about
oil, gas or mining contracts.
Only Liberia has consistently disclosed the terms of its
agriculture and forestry deals although other countries are
starting to publish land contracts, said Coleman.
"Disclosure of land contracts can empower project-affected
communities, giving them more leverage to assert their rights
and demand accountability for the impacts of these deals,"
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault, editing by Paola Totaro and Jo
Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
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