The land grab conflict between the Cambodian company KDI International and the villagers of Lorpeang village is a complex story of almost twenty years of farmers’ resistance to maintain their most important livelihood asset – land – in the battle against Cambodia’s vast granting of Economic Land Concessions (ELC) for industrial agricultural development.
The 119 families of the Lorpeang village, a rather poor area, have been living on their land since the early 1980s. Their farmers’ livelihood was disrupted in 1996, when KDC International, an agro-plantation company owned by Chea Kheng, wife of Minister of Energy and Mines Suy Sem, came to the area to acquire land through a village chief, serving as a broker. However, most of the families never agreed to the deals made, nor were informed about why KDC was in the village, measuring their land plots (1;2).
Conflict increased in the following years, when villagers refused to leave the area, after KDC demarcated and fenced villagers’ land. Protests, complaints, lawsuits and sentences against villagers followed during 2002 – 2007 and some protesters were jailed, but villagers’ resistance continued. The conflict sharpened in 2007, when the company started to clear farming land and took 500ha of villagers’ land, without offering proper compensation. Villagers, who substantially depended on land as livelihood asset, were heavily affected and increasingly forced to migrate to Thailand for pursuing alternative livelihood options (3). Formal complaints from the villagers were rejected by the provincial court, as the farmers were unable to pay 8000$ of filing tax. In 2008, the company destroyed 14 houses of villagers who refused to leave (1).
Another series of lawsuits followed, accompanied by increased police presence. Villagers started all kind of resistance mechanisms, such as protest marches, street blockades, or the blocking of bulldozers and company workers. Local rights groups started to support the case, but court decisions were largely in favour of the company. Three of the commune leaders were sentenced to prison, while one had to flee to Thailand to seek refugee status (2). Also local rights group officers who supported the case were sentenced, accused of defamation, which caused outcry among Cambodian NGOs and international human rights organizations, who in response released a joint statement in 2011, condemning the court’s decision (5). Increasingly violent clashes between the villagers and the company’s workers, causing heavy injuries, followed in the coming years (6). After legal attempts to settle the conflict seemed to fail, villagers turned to curses, religious ceremony and burning company staff in effigies, hoping that the conflict could be ended this way: “We would like to appeal to the Holy Ghost spirit to condemn the company owner and those involved to be … ruined. We do so because the authorities cannot find justice for us, only the holy things can find justice for use” (villager in an interview, 2014 (6)) After almost 20 years of land conflict, the situation received more and more national and international attention. Following the advice from the Minister of Gustice (6) as well as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights (7), the National Assembly on Human Rights decided finally in September 2014 to investigate the case and to suspend KDC activities temporarily, until land ownership is ascertained and a solution will be found (8). However, the set deadline has passed already, while the investigation is still open and the conflict remains unresolved.