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Land Grabbing: A Crippling Consequence of Unchecked Economic Development

-Nick Jones (November 17th, 2014)

On November 10th, seven representatives from the Boeung Kak Lake community were arrested while protesting flooding in their area caused by land grabbing.

“Areas near the site of the former lake have suffered from extreme flooding problems after almost 20,000 people were forcefully evicted from the area in 2008. Following the leasing and filling of the former lake by Shukaku Company, owned by Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Senator Lao Meng Khin, flooding around the community has worsened, increasing health risks and causing damage to many homes and businesses in the surrounding community.”(STT, Nov. 12th)

The seven activists were charged for obstructing public traffic (Article 78 of the Traffic Law). By 6pm the next day, they had already been tried in court and received a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a US$500 fine each.

Last month, the Land Research Action Network (LRAN) published a report analyzing the issues that arise from unchecked development, Keeping Land Local: Reclaiming Governance from the Market. The full briefing paper can be viewed here.

An extract from the report reads as follows:

“Over the past two decades, conflicts over land and natural resources have intensified in Cambodia, and they now threaten to turn into violent uprisings. Ruling elites have facilitated a frenzy of land and resource grabbing in both rural and urban areas, creating landlessness, homelessness and destitution on a massive scale. Large tracts of lands continue to be given away by the government to domestic and foreign companies as economic land concessions for industrial agriculture and tree plantations, as well as for mining, tourism and real estate development.”(Pg. 7)

Using economic development as a pretext for exploiting the local—mostly poor—population is obviously not unique to Cambodia. The LRAN report points to a number of other regional examples including Laos where state officials make handsome profits from timber, hydropower, real estate development, and mining. Myanmar’s recent flirtations with democracy have encouraged foreign investment with few safeguards in place to protect locals. In the Philippines, land grabbing is prevalent with long-standing elite families wanting to get involved in the relatively new investment opportunities. Sea gypsy communities in Southern Thailand are being forced out of their ancestral lands to make way for the growing tourism industry there.

A frightening amount of today’s large-scale “development” schemes are actually vehicles for the control and exploitation of the country’s natural resources, labor, and land. The LRAN report explains that this pattern stems from “the dominant development model [which] is market-led and prioritizes rapid economic growth, integration of local and national economies with regional-global markets, trade and investment liberalization, and privatization” (pg. 9). This model, inherently, should stimulate a nation’s economy. However, when weak judicial systems allow senior officials abuse their powers, the local population (particularly the rural poor) gains very little from these emerging markets—many lose their livelihoods and their homes instead.

Governments and investors guilty of practicing this kind of pseudo-development also seem to ignore the fact that the land they seize is profoundly more valuable to the native communities. The LRAN report provides a comprehensive explanation of this notion:

“For hundreds of millions of people around the world, land is much more than an economic asset. Often the sole source of livelihood, land is equally an emblem of rootedness, identity, belonging and stability and widely considered the very basis of social organization. Land, water, forests and their associated ‘resources’ are the foundations of life, culture, knowledge and collective memory in agrarian societies.”(Pg. 10)

This illustrates why citizens, like the seven activists from Boeung Kak Lake, are more than willing to fight for their rightful homes, despite the risks of excessive punishment—such as a year-long prison sentence for a traffic violation. As Cambodia’s development proceeds further down its chosen path, expect more protests and, to the government’s discredit, more examples of summary injustice perpetrated by the courts.