How does technology affect life in Cambodia

: Land grab in Cambodia: How the rubber industry is destroying entire lives

Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh is under construction. Old houses are being rolled flat, new shopping centers, office towers and hotels are being built. Even the tourist district is not spared. Where a hostel and a massage parlor previously shared the floor, a new hotel building is growing upwards.

"Cambodia is a gold mine, in Phnom Penh they mine diamonds." This is what Naly Pilorge says about her country, which is one of the poorest in the world, receives immense sums of development aid and in which dozen aid organizations are involved. Naly Pilorge knows: Anyone who is rich and inconsiderate here can quickly become even richer with good relations with the government and the military.

Naly Pilorge is the director of Licadho, a human rights organization that she and her mother founded in 1992. That was at the time when the country was starting to recover after the rule of the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge terror of Pol Pot killed almost two million people from 1975 onwards. When they were driven out by Vietnamese troops in 1979, a civil war broke out that only ended ten years later.

Endless plantations

Elections took place, the new government introduced economic reforms and opened up to foreign investors. Cambodia has been shining with double-digit growth figures for about 15 years. And Licadho has gained a new clientele: Naly Pilorge now has to help those who are being driven from their land by investors.

Naly Pilorge vibrates with energy, wants to talk about the dark side of this development in a café in Phnom Penh and is quite annoyed by the noise of the construction site next door. “People are being displaced everywhere, whether in the city from the Tonle Sap riverside to build the promenade there, or here to build hotels. Whether in remote provinces to mine natural resources or to cut down the rainforest for rubber trees, from which rubber is extracted. "

Land grab, says Naly Pilorge, is now the biggest problem in Cambodia. The province of Ratanakiri in the far north is particularly affected. The area is completely underdeveloped, but rich in natural resources and sparsely populated, especially by ethnic minorities. “The government allows foreign aid organizations to work there to improve the situation of the people. At the same time, however, she has the land confiscated for foreign corporations. Take a look at this to understand what is happening in Cambodia, ”she recommends.

Demand for rubber increases like greed for it

The road to the north is well developed, it is a long way. The car takes about eight hours from Phnom Penh to Banlung, the capital of Ratanakiri, and from there another two or three hours over bumpy dirt roads to the villages in the rainforest, whose inhabitants are threatened by land grabbing.

One of these villages is Chan. To the right and left of the path there is a forest. No bird sings in it, no monkey shuffles through branches, no butterflies flutter. There is no undergrowth, no bushes, no flowers. There are only rubber trees here, all at the same distance, with the same trunk circumference and the same height. Rubber and then latex are extracted from them - for the production of gloves, mattresses, car tires, and running shoe soles. The global demand for natural rubber is increasing, as is prices - and with it the greed for land for plantations.

The first houses are only about 500 meters behind the fence of this plantation. Once the village was surrounded by rainforest, today the green thicket is pushed back to the other side of the Se-San River. Only a few large trees still provide shade for the stilt houses. About 18 families live here, who belong to the Kreung minority.

"But then, one day, strangers came to the village"

It's early in the day. In the village square there is a solidly built pump that children use to splash water. The paths in the village have been swept. The chickens scratch in enclosures, the pigs grunt behind fences. At the edge is the new parish hall, where men and women now gather.

“We weren't always as good as we are now,” says Pal Pak, 41. At first he nervously kneads his hands. But gradually he is losing his shyness. “We used to starve a lot,” he says. “Our rice harvest was only enough for six or seven months.” Pigs and water buffalo romped between the houses. With every rain, the dirt was washed into the river from which the residents got their drinking water. “We were often sick and had to spend a lot of money on medicine,” adds his wife.

"But then, one day, strangers came into the village," Pel Pak says again, "Welthungerhilfe employee." The name does not have to be translated, it is easy to understand. Together they thought about what could be done about the problems. “We built the well and village toilets, the women attended a hygiene course.

Affected by the land grab

The children don't get sick that often anymore. And every house today has a small garden. We're fine, ”says Pel Pak, gesturing towards the village. “And finally Welthungerhilfe brought the people from Cedac to the village.” The Cambodian organization helps farmers to increase rice yields: through good preparation of the soil, the selection of strong seeds, and the care of the fields. "We haven't had to go hungry since then."

In fact, Chan's families shouldn't be afraid of the future. But the municipality now has a new problem. The rubber tree plantation crawls on and on like an insatiable monster. Slash and burn announce that the group - a Vietnamese company - wants to expand the plantation.

Many states are affected by land grabbing, but Cambodia is one of those in which the illegal appropriation of land can rage almost unchecked: because of opaque legal relationships; because corrupt officials help investors; because ethnic minorities farmed the land communally and have no land tenure deeds.

Civil society structures must be strengthened

The government in Phnom Penh passed a law as early as 2001 that gives minorities, at least on paper, the chance to apply for so-called “land titles” for communally used land. But the process of getting such a title is lengthy, paved with legal pitfalls and, at around $ 3,000, very expensive.

Welthungerhilfe responded to the land grab problem. New priorities are being set to defend what has been achieved in villages like Chan. “We were very successful in Cambodia,” explains Dirk Reber, who until a year ago headed the Welthungerhilfe office in the country. "But we are no longer starting any projects that are solely intended to improve the infrastructure in certain regions." In the future, they want to concentrate on strengthening the legal basis of these projects. "We have to strengthen the local civil society structures."

This has already been achieved in Chan. Two years ago the municipality decided to fight for such a land title - and then asked for support. The German aid organization agreed and engaged Licadho. Their lawyers helped the families understand the requirements, fill out the forms, give the correct answers at the first hearings.

Government works with tricks

The meeting in Chan has already been going on for hours, the families are being informed by the committee which documents they still need to apply for the land title. Everyone who wants to say something is listened to patiently. It never gets loud. “We used to just cry and complain,” says Pel Pak. "Today we fight back."

Nimol Van works for Welthungerhilfe, wears a green ranger hat and is tireless. He first translated from the Kreung language into Khmer and then into English. During a break he tries to use numbers to describe what a difficult process the people in Chan are facing. “Such a process can take up to seven years, and it is not even certain that the application will be successful.” Nationwide, only ten titles would be awarded per year.

In Ratanakiri, 26 municipalities had submitted the application. Only five have won the title so far - but not all of the land they claimed. The government not only works with threats and violence, says Nimol Van, but also with tricks. An example of this is the village of Boloy.

The curse of Mr. Rich

The next day it goes for hours on dirt roads, through rubber tree plantations and finally through a barren landscape. There are deep holes in the red soil: zircons are being dug in and around Boloy. These gemstones from Ratanakiri are considered to be the most beautiful in the world. The head of the committee in the village of Boloy is Sot Sern, a short, wiry man who says almost emotionlessly: "Our village has lost the fight for a land title."

Five years ago it was rumored that almost all of the land around the village had been leased by the government to a wealthy person from Phnom Penh. The village community immediately sent a delegation to Banlung, where it was officially announced that the land actually belongs to Mr. Rich, as they have called him ever since, and that they were actually the land robbers because they were still tilling the fields at home.

Sot Sern leads through the village while he talks. There are some permanent houses, but most of the accommodations are poor huts made of boards, cardboard, plastic sheeting. Garbage lies on the paths, sewage flows through the deep furrows. Even in the middle of the village there are deep holes in which half-naked men dig with picks and shovels.

Mr. Rich has good contacts

Why is there no aid organization involved in your village, supporting you in the construction of wells or sewers? Sot Sern smiles tiredly: “Nobody knows whether we can stay here. We want a land title. But we probably won't get it. "

On his advice, the 118 families in Boloy turned to Licadho immediately after the delegation returned and started a trial against the government. But in 2015 her request to cancel her contract with Mr. Rich was denied in the first instance. They don't have much hope that the tide will turn. Mr. Rich has good contacts in Phnom Penh, says Sot Sern. "Where there is something to be earned," he sums up, "there is a dispute over land."

"Think about it when you buy new running shoes with latex soles," said Naly Pilorge in the café in Phnom Pen, "where this stuff comes from - and what problems it causes."