Thursday, February 14, 2013

Land Is Life, and It’s Slipping Away

PHNOM PENH, Feb 14 2013 (IPS) - Nean Narin, a humble man and father of three children, says his family is going hungry. Narin lives in the village of Boeung Kak, situated on the edge of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. For years, he and other villagers relied on the Boeung Kak Lake for fish and plants, which they would eat and sell.

Displaced families in this relocation site outside Phnom Penh

But in mid-2008, construction workers began pumping sand into the lake “in preparation for the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing project” sponsored by Shukaku, Inc. — a Cambodian firm owned by a Senator of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – and leased to the Chinese-owned Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co., Ltd.

Over the next four years, the project would displace over 3,000 families.

Narin and his neighbour Tep Vanny, along with a many others, refused to leave and now live a hand-to-mouth existence, stripped of a steady livelihood.

Vanny’s parents left Boeung Kak and moved to the rural Kampong Speu province, located about 48 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

But a sugar plantation tycoon has since claimed that land, and the family now faces eviction for the second time, she told IPS. All the fruit trees Vanny’s parents relied on for food have been cut down, and no compensation offered.

What was once a modest life has now become a daily struggle for survival as a result of a land buying spree in this Southeast Asian country of 14 million people, which experts say began during the 2007-2008 financial and food crisis.

"Land is life; land is dignity and without land farmers become workers for life, working as slaves for plantation owners.”

In Cambodia, land is equivalent to life: according to Germany’s federal ministry for economic cooperation and development (GTZ) over 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers.

One of the world’s least developed countries, Cambodia seems to have no place left to go but up: over 68 percent of its people live on less than two dollars a day and 26 percent suffer from hunger on a daily basis. But the wave of land acquisitions, experienced first-hand by thousands of people like Niren and Vanny, suggests that the situation could soon get much worse.

FDI feeds landlessness

For the last two decades a wave of foreign direct investment (FDI) has had lopsided results here.

The market-driven economy – launched in 1989 and opened to foreign investors in 1993 – fuelled a rapid increase in FDI, from practically nothing in 1990 to 800 million dollars in 2008, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Asian countries were the largest investors from 2000 to 2010: China topped the list with 47.6 percent of FDI, making South Korea — with 18.8 percent — the second-largest investor.

While investments initially went straight into sectors like tourism (53 percent), infrastructure (21 percent) and the garments industry (20 percent), the past half-decade has seen a steady rise in land investments.

Various local and international experts attribute this spike to the global food and financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 when farmland became a valuable asset to wealthier countries outsourcing agricultural production to increase their food security, and financial speculators cashing in on land investments.

But this pattern could have catastrophic implications for millions of peasants here – already land tenure has been shrinking and 20 percent of agricultural families in Cambodia are landless. More