This land grab, caused by the company World Tristar Entertainment (Cambodia) Co. Ltd., is an example of how Economic Land Concessions (ELC) in Cambodia are leading to the loss of livelihood of the most poor rural farmers, while destroying the country’s valuable natural resources.
Trapang Phlang commune, which is most affected by this ELC, is a small-farmer commune located in the Koh-slah region, Chhouk district, in Kampot province. The commune expands over 51,900 ha, 2,849 of which are agricultural land. Many families in these areas are comprised of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, who were reintegrated into Cambodian society during the 1990s and received small land plots of 0.5ha for subsistence farming. The area is one of the most depressed areas in Cambodia, with only remote access to public infrastructure such as schools. Malnutrition, malaria and social problems such as domestic violence have been commonly reported in the community, characterized by largely subsistence farming and some additional cash cropping such as through the production of jasmine rice and other industrial crops (1). The region however is rich of natural resources, such as forests and wildlife, which also benefits the local communities.
The commune’s subsistence activities have been interrupted in 2005, when the government granted a 9,800ha ELC land lease concession for 70 years to World Tristar Entertainment (Cambodia) Co. Ltd., subsidiary of Vietnamese So Nguon group. The contract was signed on April 21, 2005 and the company stated to pursue cultivation of maize, beans, cassava and other crops (2). When the company first started to clear the land in the commune, villagers welcomed the activities, hoping they would bring employment. However, when they started to clear the land plots of farmers, people started to protest against these activities and threatened the company to burn their tractors. In 2010, five villagers were charged of sabotage and they had to give their fingerprints and promise to stop protesting, otherwise they would be jailed. However, other villagers continued to resist (6). Attempts to settle the conflict through local authorities failed, as Tristar insisted on their ELC, granted by the Ministry of Agriculture, while the villagers insisted that it was their land. As stated by a villager in an interview: “Losing our rice fields is like losing our pots for cooking rice” (1). The conflictive concession area covers 5,100ha (1).
Following protests, the government finally asked the company to return the 5,100ha of land to the villagers; however they only received 3,000ha back. The villagers repeated that they were not against the company, which may bring jobs, as long as they would fully return their land plots, but Tristar refused to do so. A further dimension was added to the conflict, when in 2010 10 tonnes of illegally logged rosewood were confiscated in the company’s warehouse. Hence, Tristar apparently used the concession to operate illegal logging activities in the surrounding forests, which is a million-dollar business in Cambodia (3). In April 2011, the government officially cancelled the ELC due to inactivity and illegal logging activities, however, Tristar did not disappear from the Ministry’s list of land concessions, and company’s spokesperson said the concession was re-granted in July 2011, after agreeing to an investigation of the concessions (4). In the same month, around 170 villagers were poisoned by herbicide, applied by the company near the villagers’ homes, resulting in further health problems (5).
The current status of the project is unknown, but the ELC is still listed in most databases, as well as on the company’s website.