Battambang. September 21, 2010
Lush corn, cassava and bean fields stretch a far as the foot of the limestone mountain range that separates Cambodia from Thailand, in the North West districts of Kom Rieng, Sompuev Loun and Phnom Preuk of Battambang province. It is the Cambodia that tourists don’t see, where little of the annual $2 billion U.S. development package is spent. This is the last frontier and one of the areas with the highest number of landmine victims in the country; an area in which malaria is still feared by the local residents.
For years, the government has declared its strong commitment to the agricultural sector. However, such promise has brought no real results to improve the living conditions of the farmers in these three districts. Although the farmers have moved to the area more than two decades ago from all over the country, their rights to land tenure are not guaranteed until they have registered their land with the land management ministry the full title is issued to them. The land title registration process has benefited only 30% of Cambodians. Like farmers throughout the country, farmers in these three districts stand vulnerable to government’s economic land concessions policy that benefits mega companies at the expense of small farmers. Since 2009 over 150,000 families have been victims of land grabbing and economic land concessions.
Farmers work the land twelve months a year but due to lack of capital and access to credit, they depend on Thai farmers who are free to cross the border to sell seeds, fertilizers and farming equipment to Cambodian farmers. Thai farmers are well organized and have the backing of Cambodian local officials local who receive payments and cuts from deals; made at the expense of Cambodian farmers. Thai farmers set the price of the crops and this form of trade translates to Cambodian farmers using their own land to work for Thai farmers. Small farmers- who are mainly women and families of victims of landmines- talk of their concerns and fear of losing their land as they fall further into debt year after year.
Farmers hire extra labor, mainly women and children, to work in the fields, paying them less than US$ 1 a day. A great majority of workers are youth whose luck of finding work in their villages has failed. They work wherever they can, crossing the border every day to Thailand where they are offered US$3 per day. Border police and the middlemen take one third of their earnings and their savings are sent back home.
Organizing farmers is essential to ensure that our farmers- Cambodian farmers- have bargaining power with Thai farmers.
Loans at low interest rate and technical inputs should be provided to our farmers in order to assist them in obtaining higher yield and better use of their land. Special assistance should be provided to women farmers and farmers with disabilities.
Economic land concessions must stop. Furthermore, the Courts must not be used as a tool for the government to prevent farmers from exercising their right to protest against illegal land concessions to powerful companies.