Cambodia's Zeal for Rubber Drives Ethnic Group From Land

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Cambodia's Zeal for Rubber Drives Ethnic Group From Land

Post by CEOCambodiaNews » Sat Mar 26, 2016 11:12 am

Cambodia's Zeal for Rubber Drives Ethnic Group From Land

For generations, the indigenous Bunong were famous as the great elephant keepers and masters of the forests in eastern Cambodia. They called the fertile, rolling hills of their ancestral homeland "meh ne," or mother — a source of food, livelihoods and self-identity.

From its rich red soil, they harvested rice, pumpkins and bananas. From the towering forests, they gathered honey, resin and medicinal plants. Under the leafy canopies, they buried their dead and worshipped spirits they believed lived in the rocks and trees.

All that changed in 2008, when without warning, bulldozers started razing their fields and forests to make way for rubber plantations the government had granted to a European-Cambodian joint venture that will likely feed China's burgeoning car market.

The long-term land leases, called economic land concessions, were meant to promote development in the poor, rural province of Mondulkiri, but for the roughly 800 Bunong families displaced from their ancestral land, the projects brought mostly hardship and loss.

It's a pattern that has been repeated across the country. The Cambodian human rights group LICADHO estimates that more than 200 concessions and other state-linked land deals have harmed half a million people. The U.N. has called land conflicts, including those created by the long-term leases, the country's No. 1 human rights problem.

In the seven villages of Bousra commune, losing land has meant residents must earn money to buy rice they once were able to grow. Yet most plantation jobs have gone to outsiders. Despite promised development, many roads are still dirt, sometimes impassable in rainy season.

Kop Let, wife of a village chief, says she struggles to feed her extended 17-member family after the plantation swallowed most of the family's 12 hectares (30 acres). She grows cassava as a cash crop on her remaining slice of land, sells homemade rice wine and has taken out a $3,000 loan. She worries that with the loss of land, her culture is dying out.

"Since I lost the farmland, I have now become a poor woman," she says. "Our identity as a people is disappearing little by little."

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