BOUSRA, Cambodia (AP) — 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.”
In a global land rush, many countries have sold or leased huge tracts to foreign investors, sometimes forcing out those who lived there. Josie Cohen, land campaigner at Global Witness, which investigates economic networks behind environmental destruction, said such leases are “altering the very fabric of rural societies” in Cambodia and nearby Laos and Myanmar, with ethnic minorities often suffering the most.
The Bunong say they never were warned their land would be taken and were not offered compensation before the land started to be cleared, two steps required under Cambodian law. Many say they felt forced to accept compensation when it was eventually offered, though they considered it inadequate.
Government officials failed to make developers comply with legal requirements for receiving concessions. And while Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law protects the rights of indigenous peoples to manage their traditional land, it has been of no use to Bunong affected by the rubber plantations around Bousra.
The three joint ventures operating the plantations are held mostly by Socfinasia, a unit of Socfin, a Luxembourg-based agro-industrial company. Cambodian developer Khaou Chuly Development Co., or KCD, is a partner in two.
Socfin says the government invited it to develop the area and that it complied with the law. It disputes the villagers’ account, saying they were informed and compensated beforehand, but it declined to provide evidence.
Socfin CEO Luc Boedt said the plantations, jobs and new markets have transformed the area.
“We brought wealth to a place where there was nothing,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in Brussels.
“Bousra was a few huts,” he said. “Now it’s a little town.”
Environment Minister Say Sam Al declined to comment on the Socfin leases, saying he wasn’t familiar with the details. He defended the overall program but acknowledged problems in carrying it out.
“The idea was to build an economic pillar … and in the process we hoped to improve the livelihoods of our people,” he told the AP. “But I don’t deny that in the implementation of the policy, we had problems. But we are changing that now.”
Criticism of the overall program led the government to put a moratorium on new land leases in 2012 and to review each one. It has revoked 40, but many disputes remain.
Today, the hills around Bousra are covered in rows of rubber trees. Gigantic stumps and fallen trunks protrude here and there, reminders of the ancient forests. After seven years, many rubber trees are nearly ready to be tapped for their milky latex.
Many Bunong want their land back, but feel they have no recourse.
“We often complained to the authorities and the government about our land problems, but they didn’t really care,” villager Yin Rouey said. “They consider the Bunong as just stupid or uneducated people.” Cambodia’s Khmer majority, in fact, sometimes uses the word “Bunong” as an insult.
Most villagers are trying to negotiate with Socfin and key shareholder Bollore Group to seek better roads, services and jobs and to settle various disputes. They have joined forces with communities in four African countries — Cameroon, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone — that also have protested Socfin operations.
A smaller group of 83 villagers is taking legal action — not in Cambodia’s corruption-prone court system but in Paris, next to the town where Bollore is based. They are suing the company, which holds 39 percent of Socfin, for their land to be returned, plus damages. Bollore declined to comment on the dispute.
“We have been waiting for negotiations and justice since 2008, when our hair was black,” said one plaintiff, Plang Sin. “But now our hair is gray.”
Cambodia began granting land concessions in the late 1990s to spur growth as it struggled to recover from decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.
No published official data has gauged their economic impact, but researchers at the University of Copenhagen estimated that incomes of families living near concessions were on average 15 to 19 percent lower than they would have been had the leases never been granted.
The Bunong lost not just rice fields but grazing land, so they had to sell much of their livestock, regarded as a security asset. Losing forests means being cut off from resources that once earned some families more than $2,000 a year, said Esther Leemann, a Swiss social anthropologist who has worked in Mondulkiri.
“There has been an impoverishment of the majority of the families,” said Leemann, a senior researcher and lecturer at the University of Lucerne. “Very few families got richer.”
Financial returns have been underwhelming for the government as well. Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen told foreign investors that the leases generated just $47.6 million in rental income between 2011 and 2014, a tiny fraction of the country’s budget.
Concessions require the approval of the Council of Ministers, an institution that operates with little oversight and is helmed by Hun Sen, who has ruled for 30 years. The government has not revealed the full extent of the leases, but LICADHO said that after revocations, it has identified 272 covering 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 sq. miles), or just over a tenth of the country.
Most have been given to Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian companies, including several with ties to top Cambodian officials. Some simply chopped down the forests without creating the developments they had promised.
Violence and evictions accompanied many concessions. In 2012, security forces fatally shot a 15-year-old girl during a clash with residents who refused to vacate farmland in Kratie province. One case still before the courts stems from the 2006 eviction of some 4,000 villagers by armed military police to make way for a Thai-Taiwanese-Cambodian sugar concession.
In October, the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council stripped its certification from the Vietnam Rubber Group after finding that its subsidiaries were involved in illegal logging and evicted local communities. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Similar problems have plagued Myanmar and Laos, where plantations, mines or dam projects have displaced local inhabitants. Across the three countries, some 53,000 square kilometers (20,500 square miles) are under land concessions.
“It has failed as a tool of development. It’s a scheme for quick bucks,” said Ou Virak, an economist who heads a public policy think tank in Phnom Penh. “If you’re a senior government official or someone really well connected, you try to profit from the scheme.”
Last month, the prime minister declared the review process complete and pledged to return nearly 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) to poor families, leaving 11,000 square kilometers for concessions. Human rights groups expressed skepticism since only 40 concessions had been canceled and the government didn’t disclose how it reached the figure or details about the review process.
Say Sam Al, the environment minister, said he hopes the moves will “close a difficult chapter for Cambodia.” The broader goal is to modernize Cambodia’s economy, he said, which will involve change for indigenous peoples.
“For some of these people, the forest is their social safety net,” he said. “But through economic growth, job creation, new opportunities, we hope that the sons and daughters of these people will abandon their dependence on forests and move on to something else.”
Yin Rouey considers the day the bulldozers rumbled in to be the most devastating of his life. This from a man who lost half his family to U.S. bombs in the Vietnam War, and who survived the Khmer Rouge-led genocide.
“In war, people die, but that’s not as bad as losing our land,” he said as pigs and chickens scuttled around him in a dusty village. “We Bunong rely on the land for our survival. We are not like other people who, if they don’t have land, can do other kinds of work easily. For us, if there’s no land, it will kill us.”
As the machines churned up the red soil that day in April 2008, the Bunong villagers rushed outside in shock.
Bulldozer drivers and local officials told the villagers the land had been awarded to a company, which they found out was KCD, Socfin’s partner. Villagers vaguely recalled local officials telling them a company would bring development, but they say they were never told their land would be taken.
Under Cambodian law, before concessions can be granted, people affected must be consulted and issues such as relocation and compensation must be resolved. Those things didn’t happen until after the bulldozers showed up, according to villagers, a 2009 memorandum by the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Center and an internal legal analysis commissioned by Socfin-KCD that was obtained by the AP.
About 100 Bunong protested peacefully at the provincial governor’s office, prompting KCD officials to make initial offers of compensation that were never carried out, the legal center’s report said.
Tensions grew. Some communal burial grounds were bulldozed; it’s unclear whether that was done knowingly.
In December 2008, some 400 villagers, armed with axes and machetes, burned three earth-moving vehicles and damaged supplies at the plantation company’s office in Bousra. Socfin then took over management operations from KCD and compensation discussions finally began in earnest, community members said.
When asked about the timing of the land-clearing, Luc Boedt said KCD handled it without involvement from Socfin.
KCD officials could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts by phone and in person over several months. KCD’s address listing with the Commerce Ministry led to a Phnom Penh laundry shop.
Socfin offered the Bunong choices for compensation: cash, alternative lands or the opportunity to farm rubber. But villagers say the payouts were too low and the lands of inadequate size, location and quality, and that they received little instruction in rubber farming.
Kop Let, the village chief’s wife, said officials involved in the plantation told them, “‘You have to accept our compensation. If you don’t accept it, the forests will be destroyed anyway.'”
The developers dispute that allegation. “Not a single family was forced to leave or accept any solution,” Socfin-KCD general manager Jef Boedt said.
The Bunong did not formally hold title to the land; all property titles were eradicated by the Khmer Rouge during their 1975-79 regime. The Bunong have begun the process of seeking a collective land title and, under Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law, they have the right to manage their traditional lands in the interim.
The 2009 legal analysis obtained by the AP and written by Maia Diokno — a human rights lawyer hired to provide an objective legal assessment of Socfin-KCD’s operations — concluded that the company violated laws and failed to seek “free, prior informed consent” as outlined by the non-binding U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Cambodia, Luxembourg and France all voted for.
Community members “almost unanimously stated that they did not know that the company would be coming in,” the report said. Once compensation options were offered, some villagers said they were told their land would be taken whether they accepted them or not, it said.
The leases produced the “unfortunate result of dispossessing indigenous persons of their land,” the report concluded.
“They didn’t comply with Cambodian law,” Diokno told the AP.
Even so, Sok Sam Ouen, a human rights lawyer in Phnom Penh, notes that companies accused of violating laws have a defense: Cambodian authorities approved their actions.
“The one to whom the people should complain is the government, not the company,” he said.
Socfin, one of few Western lease-holders in Cambodia, says it is committed to being a positive force in Bousra, and that its record compares well to other players.
“We did not barge in and chase everyone out,” said Luc Boedt, the CEO. “These concessions were legally obtained.”
Socfin said it has invested $80 million to create the plantations, pay workers, construct roads and build more than 450 employee housing units. It also built a school and helped pay teacher and administrator salaries.
“I invite you to spend only one night in Bousra village, and you will know how poor it is,” Boedt said. “And this gives the occasion for the people to get out of that misery.”
Socfin says families cultivating rubber could earn more than $10,000 a year — far above the country’s per-capita income.
Nuon Saron, the governor of the Pech Chreada district, said villagers’ living conditions have improved, with better roads and families buying more motorcycles and even cars.
Most plantation jobs, however, have gone to members of the dominant Khmer. In 2014, Bunong held 177, or a fifth, of the 844 jobs Socfin-KCD created. The government doesn’t allow preferential hiring of Bunong, although the company says it gives priority to them.
In December, Bunong villagers, Socfin officials and local authorities held their first “tripartite” meeting to promote dialogue and resolve outstanding disputes. Participants agreed to meet again in April.
But villagers now seem mostly resigned to Socfin’s presence, and hold out only faint hope they’ll regain their land.
Some Bunong believe the bulldozers even took away their ancestral religion.
“They are afraid the spirits are angry at them because we haven’t taken care of them,” said Neth Prak, an informal community representative. “I used to pray to this mountain, to this forest, but now this forest is gone. They killed the trees, and the spirits were there.”
“Should I still pray to this forest?” he asked. “Where are the spirits now?”