August 13-14, 2011; Odea Village, Battambang Province – The team from Strey Khmer led by Executive Director Reaksmey Arun, facilitated a two-day training session in Battambang, a province in the North West of Cambodia. The sessions were held in Odea Village – a small, isolated community 4 hours away from the city of Battambang. Residents in this area are victims of the government’s extensive land concessions. The government, in cooperation with local authorities, has signed away 4095 Hectares of the villagers’ agricultural land to a private company without the approval of the affected villagers. The weekend training session was supported by Urgent Action fund, an organization that supports women’s rights defenders to create cultures of justice, equity and peace .
The focus of the training session was to support female community leaders in the defense of their land rights. Many of the locals in that region of Cambodia are in constant fear of their safety and security. Activists in the area are targeted and warned by local authorities against any type of advocacy or community mobilization. Violent conflicts have occurred as a result of these land concessions and villagers’ confrontations with the local authorities. The aim of our sessions was to educate local women about their rights according to the Cambodian Land Law, and to train women leaders to use non-violent means as a form of self-defense.
Upon our arrival to Odea village we were greeted by 40 participants and a message from the village chief. The local authorities had been watching our activities and wanted to know the reason behind the morning assembly. Satisfied that we were a group of University students from the city seeking to educate local women, we were allowed to continue our sessions. Residents of the village are very poor and most are unable to receive an education past the grade 6 level as the nearest school for a higher education lies outside of their town. Due to monetary constraints, the children are often required by their parents to begin work at a young age. Many of the young women at the training session desired higher education, yet lacked the opportunity to obtain it. Most of the villagers are farmers/laborers who are dependent on the land they live on for economic survival.
As villagers began raising the issues of land concessions and the 70-year land lease the government has signed over to a private company, they expressed their feelings of hopelessness. We then discussed the obligations of the government to the people prior to an eviction, in order for it to be considered legal:
- The government must inform the villages of the sale, the intended use of the land, and the proposed date of eviction.
- The government must actively engage the villagers affected by the land concessions, and must gain complete approval from the people.
- If the land is intended for use in public development (ie. Necessary roads, education facilities, health centers etc), the government must seek every means available to continue the project without affecting the land of the villagers.
- If the villagers’ land must be taken, the government must provide fair compensation to the locals.
- The entire process must be completed without the use of violence.
None of these requirements had been adhered to in the case of the 4095 HA of land. With the introduction of the land law, we received a second phone call from the village chief. He warned us that he had at least 5 men in attendance at our session and that we had to disassemble the group by noon. With at least 35 people waiting to hear about their rights to land, we were being forced to pack up and leave by the ones who were helping to coordinate the illegal land concessions.
The following day, we reconvened the session with a group of 20 villagers in the neighboring village. Away from the prying eyes of the village leader, the attendees discussed land conflicts, laws, the difference between forced and legal evictions, obligations of the government, and the rights they possessed as Cambodian citizens.
In groups of 8-10 people, we discussed the obligations of the government and the rights of the people to their land. The young women and men were given the opportunity stand up and voice their opinions and rights to the entire group – a first for many of those in attendance.
We ended the sessions by collectively singing “Land is Life” by the Messenger Band, and encouraging one another to use our new knowledge to help one another and to help our neighbors who are struggling to maintain their rights to land.