Forced evictions and land grabbing are nothing new in Cambodia, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), but it is new for communities to fight back.
"If we don't have our land, we cannot live," Yi Kunthear said. In August, she was reportedly beaten unconscious by sugar plantation workers while trying to defend her land. "We will block our land if the company tries to take it again."
Kunthear, 25, grew up on her family's small farm growing rice, cassava and cashew nuts in the rural district of Sre Ambel, Koh Kong Province. But in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that her family's land, along with that of her 34 neighbours, belonged to Heng Huy, a local businessman.
On 27 August, Sre Ambel villagers blocked the road as Huy's bulldozers rolled in, joined by Kompong Speu provincial farmers also made landless by Senator Ly Yong Phat's giant sugar company purchase.
According to Cambodia's revised 2001 land law, if farmers prove they have worked their land for five years, they are entitled to own it; nevertheless, about 90 percent of the country's 14.5 million inhabitants do not hold title deeds to the land they live and work on, the OHCHR reports.
Village documents show Sre Ambel's farmers have worked the land since the 1980s. However, Huy says he bought the title for the 779ha land concession in 1993.
And while national organizations such as the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) have defended the landless in court, Sre Ambel's farmers have stepped up their resistance by registering a lawsuit in Koh Kong's provincial court against the Heng Huy Company, along with its UK buyer, Tate & Lyle.
Challenging the EU
Community representatives from sugar-growing provinces - an industry dominated by ruling party member Phat - have challenged the European Union's "Everything But Arms" tax-free policy for Cambodian sugar exports.
They are supported by national human rights watchdog, Licahdo, the grassroots activist Community Peacebuilding Network and land-rights INGO, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC).
Photo: Rebecca Murray/IRIN
|Yi Kunthear was beaten while defending her plot of land|
"The EU is effectively subsidizing land grabbing in Cambodia by giving preferential treatment to companies that have produced goods on stolen land," David Pred, BABC executive director, told IRIN. "Large-scale land concessions for sugar production have displaced and impoverished thousands of Cambodian families in three provinces."
Earlier this month, the EU Charge d'Affaires in Cambodia, Rafael Dochao-Moreno, said the EU was gathering information to better understand the policy's impact, although it was not investigating possible human rights violations.
Recent executive sub-decrees in Cambodia have seen fertile, forested public land reclassified as private state property, explained Chum Narin, CLEC's land and natural resource programme head, who is involved with the Sre Ambel case.
Thousands of families around Phnom Pehn's Boeng Kak Lake will be uprooted to make way for developers, according to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of over 20 organizations working on this issue.
Some 133,000 people - 10 percent of Phnom Penh's inhabitants - are believed to have been affected by such evictions since 1990, according to a 2009 Licahdo report.
And more than 250,000 people in the 13 provinces where CHRAC works have been hit hard by land grabbing and forced evictions since 2003, it says.
Numerous protesters and petitions have targeted the Prime Minister Hun Sen but to little effect. However, grassroots community networks - from the Koh Kong farmers to the indigenous in Ratanakiri - are beginning to grow.
Dam Chanthy is a local activist from the remote, mineral-rich province of Ratanakiri. She became outraged at the exploitation of the region's indigenous people, especially after she witnessed one company trade a litre of wine for a hectare of land.
Now Chanthy, who has escaped attempts on her life, travels around the province to raise awareness about land law, land prices, and promote health and indigenous culture, mainly through the Highlander Association.
"We believe the best way to effect human rights change here is to support and nurture the development of grassroots Cambodian civil society," says Pred.
"The people's organizations and networks that have emerged in recent years are demanding justice and accountability in increasing numbers. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with."