Land-grabbing is such a tragic activity in developing countries. A land grab is essentially a large-scale acquisition of property, either buying or leasing, by a company, government, or person. We are talking the big boy elite here. Step back and imagine you are living off the land. Maybe land-ownership isn’t a clear concept to you, or maybe you just assume the land is yours. Your family might have been there for generations. You might have your house, your farm, your animals. But one day some agents for the big boys come and tell you it’s time to go. A foreign company is setting up a serious cash crop enterprise or a big tourist resort that doesn’t need you or your chickens. Or a well-financed project is about to come and take all the timber that lays between vast parcels that your house happens to sit on. Maybe you receive some compensation for your loss, but you quickly find out you aren’t going to go far on that once you’re homeless and have no land to cultivate.
Cambodia is a textbook case for how governments can sell off their country for quick profit and leave residents with nothing. It’s important to remember that “Year Zero” of the traumatic killing era of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was the fundamentally start of a shift that touched every aspect of Cambodian society. Year Zero refers to the first year of the horrific revolution in which culture and tradition were supposed to be completely wiped out with a new revolutionary culture to start from scratch. Education, institutions, and every cultural aspect were purged and replaced with a drastic de-industrialisation measure.
After three years of slaughtering and displacement, land ownership was not on the minds of a population that had struggled to live through the most basic means of survival. As people returned to the capital city of Phnom Penh which had been completely vacant, abandoned houses were taken by those who laid claim. In the rural areas, after over decade of collective property rights failed, land ownership was introduced. However, few land titles were ever granted and often led to residents with little will to invest heavily in their property. The relative ease of land-grabs can be made through an ambiguous system where ownership is often not clear and people are not really aware of any rights to their land.
I have fallen in love with the province of Kampot in southern Cambodia. Its small town on a beautiful river is charming and a relax-haven only two and a half hours from Phnom Penh. The river is actually salty and the hilly green scenery is a privilege to cast your eyes upon. Perhaps my love for Kampot goes beyond the beauty and also comes from the inspiration I felt after visiting two villages through my work here.
Driving through salt fields, you come across the mangrove refuge known as Tropong Songke. Beautifully set on the Kampot riverbank, the simple infrastructure of houses and walkways on top of stilts is more than what it seems. In the not-so-distant past, it wasn’t uncommon to see mangrove trees being removed to make way for development. Unscrupulous fishermen would throw dynamite in the river to fill their boats with instantly floating fish without a second thought. In 2005, the local government served notice to the residents that they would have to move on and make way for a group of salt-producing elite. The fields were not enough, the small number of wealthy landowning salt producers wanted 31 hectares of the mangroves too.
What happened next is a rare and inspiring tale that has not been seen often in Cambodia. The community regained its land. They did it through a very grassroots strategy employing a human rights based approach. Led by Mr. Sim Him, a coordinated group of leaders came together to challenge the status quo of chronic Cambodian land-grabbing by the rich. Mr. Sim is a passionate village leader and eloquent speaker for those who are lucky enough to hear his story. He is open about his own fear in speaking out against the country’s all powerful and almighty.
As the threat of encroachment onto the community’s land became official, Mr. Sim saw the inevitable misery that would fall upon with fellow residents. With eight other passionate villagers, he put together an ad hoc group. Their goal was to establish an official committee and reclaim the mangrove land for their own use. The authorities resisted initial efforts on two main fronts. Firstly, since rich landowners now officially possessed all of the property, a village movement might look more like a takeover revolt. Secondly, there wasn’t enough evidence that this was a true community effort but rather a politicised activity led by the “questionable” committee. So the committee of seven men and two women realised that they would need to focus on gaining community support and better understanding the legal context of land ownership and the rights of the residents.
They began by going out there and talking to fearful villagers who were aware that they would soon have to leave the land they lived on. They explored their legal rights and reached out to over 2,000 community members. They brought everyone together in a community forum and emphasised how the loss of land would effect each and every villager. With some support from a local civil society organisation, they collectively decided that they needed to officially establish their own community and take control of the land they had been living on for generations.
With a goal of gaining at least 65% support in the community, the group wildly surpassed their expectations gaining cooperation from the vast majority of the residents. They worked on the legal aspects of land ownership and began advocating the local authorities. Ignored by a controlled commune council that took orders from the central government, one evening at 7pm they arrived at the house of the provincial governor to listen to their case. Two hours later, they received the green light to establish their own community and take control of their contested land. As the wheels were set into motion, there was no turning back. The community now communally owns the 31 hectares of mangrove land and has a brand new appreciation for it.
The beautiful part of the story actually goes on further because once they gained their land, they knew that they would need to use it to the best of the entire community’s benefit. They worked together to put an end to illegal fishing by leading patrols and getting the local police involved. They increased their own fishing among community fishermen. In spite of a lot more people fishing, fish and seafood stocks actually sky-rocketed because the end to dynamite practices by a few river thugs actually gave way to a major positive environmental impact. They made their committee more official with monthly meetings, a strategic plan, and community discussion on priorities. A new focus on eco-tourism has turned into a simple accommodation under mosquito nets on the mangrove with activities led by different residents. I personally saw a few backpackers staying there and exploring the mangrove in kayaks. There is talk about more home-stays and boat trips to come. In in terms of citizen-government relations, in a complete turn-around the local commune council now invites the committee to their regular meetings and looks to them as true community representatives. The community is proud of their success and it shows through talking to them.
Another community not too far from here also found a way to get back their land from a sudden announcement by the Council of Ministers that four families would be taking ownership of 72 hectares by the mangroves that was home to 760 families. I’ve written about this story through my work in the article Regaining land and a community’s new take on livelihoods in Kampot. In not such a different case, this community took back their land through community activism and decided to focus on processing their own shrimp resources, creating souvenirs, and developing eco-tourism activities. The results for the community have been phenomenal and similarly to Tropang Songke, they’ve also seen an increase in fish and shellfish after stopping illegal fishing.
Kampot is a beautiful province. Idyllic scenery, fantastic food, gorgeous sunsets, a salty river, and beautiful fireflies that light up the trees at night. But beyond the beauty and the marvels that it offers the visitor, Kampot has a strong community of civil society actors that are really making dramatic decisions to improve the lives of citizens. For those of you with a chance to visit Kampot one day, apart from trips to the mountain, swims in the river, and a sampling of wonderful seafood – I recommend you make your way out to Tropang Songke and have a look at a community that would have never existed had Mr. Sim and his fellow residents decided not to take on the government and the elite.
And if you don’t mind sleeping on a dock under a mosquito net, the $3 accommodation charge is an astronomical deal!