Land Grabs / News

Drawing a Line in the Sand on Land Dispute

By Saing Soenthrith

In the early 1980s, shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, my stepmother and I were given a small patch of farmland in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district.

We received 896 square meters of land from our “solidarity group” chief. The land was adjacent to a creek that, as a young boy, I helped dig while the Khmer Rouge were in control of the country.

The land was ideal for growing rice, which I did, along with the help of my stepmother, for the next three decades, even while I worked as a reporter for The Cambodia Daily.

Late last year, high banks of coarse sand were dumped around my plot of land. When it rained, rocky silt flooded into my rice field making it useless for farming.

This newspaper has written extensively about land grabbing; poor communities struggling against so-called developments that impoverish them, and people forced off the land they have farmed for decades.

I have covered countless land disputes, but never thought I would be the subject of such a story.

I have an official land title from the government.

I thought my land was safe.

I was wrong.

When I visited my land in December and saw that it had been filled with dirt, I walked straight to the massive factory being built a few hundred meters away. Inside, I encountered a group of Chinese-speaking managers from Taiwan and, speaking English, asked them why my land was inundated with their gravel. I showed them my land title. They didn’t have much to say. They did, however, put me on the phone with a Cambodian woman who told me not to be angry because the company had simply made a mistake when they filled in my land.

I complained to Kandal Provincial Governor Phay Bunchhoeun. The governor said that I should sort out the dispute with a local land broker named Chum Lysovanarith. If we could not come to “an agreement,” the governor advised, I should take the case to court.

Mr. Lysovanarith arrived one afternoon in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We talked on my now sandy patch of land, which would have been planted with rice if the company had not dumped gravel all around.

Mr. Lysovanarith made no apologies for the damage, and simply offered to buy my land for $8 to $10 per square meter.

The going market price for land in Siem Reap commune, Kandal Stung district is, I believe, far higher than that.

I told Mr. Lysovanarith I was not interested in selling and that he was responsible for restoring my land to its previous state. He disagreed. We parted ways.

In 2005, I was issued an official title to my land, which measures 11 meters wide by a little more than 80 meters, as part of the World Bank-funded Cambodia Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP).

Nevertheless, I have discovered a document, which appears to show that my land is now inside a swath of land that now, apparently, is demarcated for the Taiwanese company.

The company is building a large wall around their huge plot of land, the bricks of which come right to the entrance of my plot.

A clerk at the Siem Reap commune office gave me a copy of a document showing that Taiwanese national Lin Wen Chih, the owner of Sunlit Enterprises Co. Ltd., has been awarded 386,575 square meters of land in the commune, along with permission to fill it in to use as “development land.”

According to a map with that document, Lin Wen Chih’s land appeared to cover my land—that was until I started my complaint.

“After communal authorities issued a notice publicly for 15 days, there were no complaints,” reads Lin Wen Chih’s ownership document, signed by deputy commune chief Men Pann, which states that Mr. Wen Chih is thus the rightful owner of all the land designated in the document. My land is a tiny sliver inside his bloc.

“Local authorities assess that the request for digging up the earth and filling in the land that belongs to [Lin Wen Chih] is appropriate for issuing permission,” the document continues, adding that the provincial department of industry, mines and energy will “examine and facilitate” the agreement.

So my land, once a productive rice field, is now part of an expanse of sand stretching out around a foreign-owned garment factory that remains under construction. Workers are busy constructing a three-meter high brick wall around the land. They haven’t sealed the entrance to my land, leaving a gaping hole in their boundary fence.

Astonished by these developments, I paid a visit to Hul Hem, the chief of Siem Reap commune, a man I first met more than 30 years ago when he was serving in the local militia of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea when the land in Siem Reap commune was divided among local villagers, like myself, for farming.

Mr. Hem said he had never signed off on any document allowing any company to take my land, or other small plots of land surrounding it.

After months of silence from local authorities, on March 4 I received a call from Lim Kimny, bureau chief of the Kandal province inter-sectoral office, which deals with such disputes. Mr. Kimny offered to mediate with the land broker, Mr. Lysovanarith, who for the first time admitted to representing the Taiwanese company Sunlit Enterprises.

This newfound interest in my land dispute by Kandal province officials followed directly after prominent journalist Soy Sopheap wrote an opinion piece, published on his Deum Ampil news website, about my land dispute and expressing dismay that the government’s land titles are being ignored.

I met with Mr. Kimny and Mr. Lysovanarith, but the company had nothing new to offer: They want me to sell my land for $10 per square meter, which, I believe, is below its market value.

Mr. Lysovanarith said at the meeting that Sunlit Enterprise had not intended to violate anyone’s rights, and apologized for the gravel that had rendered my land infertile.

He offered to buy my land at his original offered prices, or provide me with alternative land at a different location. But, returning my land to its previous state by removing the gravel was not possible, he said.

I am now faced with taking my case to court, but I don’t want to take that route.

I would rather be preparing to harvest my rice field, as I have for the past 30 years.

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