Rice prices fall in Battambang

The price of rice in Battambang province has dropped by as much as 25 per cent in recent days, pushed down by, among other things, recent flooding and wind that have lowered the grain’s quality, as well as a lack of investment by the private sector.

Battambang provincial governor Nguon Ratanak told The Post on November 23 the fact that farmers had flocked to harvest at a time when rice millers were unable to buy it up in a timely manner also led to the plummeting price.

He said however the price decrease remained at acceptable levels because the Phka Romduol rice variety still cost one million riel ($250) per tonne.

“This price of rice is falling because its quality is not yet up to an acceptable level. After the past floods, some rice leaned into the water and became black. So, we speak about the price falling, and we forget about its quality. Its quality also affects the price.

“After the floods, the wind blows stalks of rice down to the ground. We harvest it late or we harvest it early, its grains are black. We cannot assess it overall,” he said.

Ratanak called on local farmers not to harvest rice at the incorrect time, explaining that when its quality is spoiled the rice must be sold at a lower price. He also called on the private sector to continue to invest in rice in Battambang.

“They have rice mills and rice-drying ovens and they can buy rice from farmers. Currently, they have many rice mills but less rice-drying ovens, so they can’t buy much rice from farmers,” Ratanak said.

Chhim Vichara, the director of the provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, acknowledged the price of rice in the province was falling – from 1,200,000 riel per tonne to between 950,000 riel and 970,000 riel per tonne, depending on the quality.

Battambang has been hit hard by flooding, he said, estimating that the floods and winds had destroyed 30 per cent of the area’s rice stalks.

He said the lack of combine harvesters was also a problem. During the floods, the owners of combine harvesters moved their machines to other provinces, making the harvesting price competitive. Previously, 1ha of rice stalks would cost 280,000 riel to harvest. Now, according to Vichara, the price has reached 350,000 riel to 400,000 riel per hectare, although the authorities have advised combine harvester owners not to increase their prices.

Seun Thouna, a farmer in Thma Koul village, said the price of rice had dropped to more than 800,000 riel per tonne. In previous years, farmers had sold it for more than 1 million riel per tonne.

“No one come to intervene in this problem because farmers have produced many quality yields. If the problem continues, farmers will be forced to spend more on their day-to-day livelihoods. They also have to pay the interest to banks because many farmers had borrowed money from banks to grow crops,” Thouna said.

“What farmers wish now is for relevant authorities to help intervene to make the rice price acceptable. The price should be more than a million riel per tonne,” he said.

Theng Savoeun, the director of the NGO Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, said if the government does not resolve the problem of falling rice prices, it will have a serious impact on livelihoods of thousands of farming families.

He said some farmers would face the threat of selling their rice paddies to pay the interest they owe to banks. Some others would leave their homes for work in cities or migrate abroad to earn money, he added.

“To solve this problem, the government should release the national budget to buy rice from farmers and stock it so it can be milled and exported to sell abroad,” Savoeun said.

“The government should help stop brokers from lowering the price of rice arbitrarily.”

16 Days of Global Action on Agroecology: Rural peoples mobilise for food systems change

PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) and its partners across the globe today launched the 16 Days of Global Action on Agroecology 2020, with the theme “Fight for Food Systems Change!”, as rural peoples confront the challenges of the hunger crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 16 Days of Global Action on Agroecology is an annual campaign from October 1 to 16 aimed at promoting agroecology as an alternative to chemical-based corporate agriculture and as a way towards achieving people’s food sovereignty. Now on its 6th year, the global campaign this year focuses on the plight of rural peoples during the pandemic, and their demands and aspirations for fundamental changes in the food and agricultural system.

“The COVID-19 crisis confirmed what many rural communities around the world already know – that the prevalent food systems dominated by big profit-seeking interests are failing. There is an urgent need for a radical shift on how, for instance, we are producing food. Agroecology provides us a viable way to produce food in a manner that protects the environment and promotes the rights of farmers and other direct food producers,” said PANAP executive director Sarojeni Rengam.

Rengam stressed that agroecological approaches to food production can only be truly sustainable and beneficial if pursued in the context of thoroughgoing agrarian reform and long-term rural development. “Agroecology can only thrive when land and other productive resources needed to produce food are unencumbered by corporate or landlord monopoly control,” Rengam pointed out.

Several activities will be held in various countries in the Asia Pacific region, Latin America, North America, and Africa as part of the 16 Days of Global Action. These include trainings on agroecology; rural youth leadership trainings; a youth and agroecology webinar; seed exhibitions; bike tours; relief mission for migrant farmworkers; indigenous peoples’ harvest festival & knowledge exchange; home gardening workshops; a plantation protest; village-level educational discussions; a rally vs. an anti-farmer bill; a farmers’ forum on food and rights; youth-led traditional paddy and millet cultivation; and a students’ conference, among others.

On October 14, PANAP will hold an online launch of the book “Pandemic of hunger: Asserting people’s rights amid COVID-19.” On October 15, Rural Women’s Day, there will be local rural women’s festivals and an online Rural Women’s Speak-Out hosted by the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition. The campaign will culminate on October 16 with the #Hungry4Change Digital Farmers’ Caravan, a 13 hour-long online live broadcast rally to mark the “World Hunger Day”, together with the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) and Asian Peasant Coalition (APC).

Initiated by the APC, World Hunger Day is the counterpoint of food sovereignty advocates to the official World Food Day that commemorates the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) every October 16.

A social media campaign using the hashtags #AgroecologyNow, #Hungry4Change and #FoodAndRightsNow will also highlight the demands of rural peoples throughout the 16 Days of Global Action.

Participating organisations include: Bangladesh Research Centre for Indigenous Knowledge or BARCIK; Instituto Politekniko Tomas Katari (Bolivia); Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community or CCFC; Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT), Roots for Equity and Khoj Society for People’s Education (Pakistan); MTKP (Guatemala); Society for Rural Education and Development SRED, Kudumbam, and Andhra Pradesh Vyavsaya Vruthidarula Union or APVVU (India); SERUNI (Indonesia); Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum or ESAFF (Kenya); Tenaganita and ARROW (Malaysia); Women’s Rehabilitation Centre or WOREC (Nepal); Peasant Movement of the Philippines or KMP, Union of Agricultural Workers or UMA, Artist Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development or SAKA, MASIPAG, Amihan, Gabriela, and Kadamay-Pandi (Philippines); Vikalpani National Women’s Federation (Sri Lanka); Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development CGFED (Vietnam); Young Volunteers for the Environment or JVE (Ivory Coast); PAN Africa (Senegal); Zambia Social Forum; Youth for Food Sovereignty; Asian Rural Women’s Coalition; People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty; Asian Peasant Coalition; and PAN North America.

Youths use Facebook to ease farmers’ burden

The pandemic has affected everyone in the world in some way, but some have been hit harder than others. Cambodian farmers fall in the latter group, as many of them have faced a severe loss of income due to the pandemic-spiked economy.

To assist these farmers in dire straits, a group of youths has come together to create Covid Farmer Hacker, a project that hopes to link rural farmers with markets across the country.

The group was formed in late March by five students. They manage the Facebook page of the project and are working on ways to put farmers’ fruits and vegetables in consumers’ hands.

The five founding team members – Doung Chandarith, 23; Rile Piton, 20; Vang Rattanakmealtey, 20; Ean Sreyleak, 22 and Heng Sotheavy, 21 – are seniors in university or have just graduated.

While they were thinking of how to help vulnerable farmers at the grassroots level, they came across Impact Hub Cambodia, an organisation which connects and enables young Cambodians to solve problems in the world through entrepreneurial initiatives.

Sotheavy and Piton tell The Post: “As we see, lots of farmers’ products, including vegetables and fruits are not selling during Covid-19. We were all friends before and asked each other who was interested and which part they would be able to cover.”

They penned a proposal seeking support and mentorship from Impact Hub.

“The borders have been closed and even in the country, farmers aren’t able to sell well. This is why we came up with the idea of creating this project to connect farmers with leftover products to local and urban markets,” says Chandarith.

The team at Covid Farmer Hacker also wants to safeguard farmers’ products against natural disasters and share new farming techniques through social media.

Chandarith, a medical student, broke down their mission in three steps. “In step one, we find interested members to plan a project.

“Step two, we manage the [Facebook] page, find a sponsor and start to publicly post to let people know more about us. We then start to share the farmers’ products and pass them on to those who are interested.

“In step three, when we are known by many people and supported by sponsors, we will go down to the community or provinces where agriculture has been severely impacted by Covid-19 and connect farmers and buyers through social media,” he says.

Sotheavy, who recently graduated from Cam Ed Business School with a degree in accounting and finance, says: “Now we only pass the information we have via Facebook. If we see farmers post pictures of their products, we will share and let people who are interested contact them directly.”

Chandarith says social media is the perfect avenue to drum up support and it was unnecessary to create a completely new platform.

Instead, if they manage to get sponsors for the project, they plan to use the resources to expand the rural farmer and consumer communities.

“If we get more sponsors, we want to have a bigger community to stay in close touch with them [the farmers],” he says.

During the past seven months, the team has worked on the project voluntarily. Although they’re not paid, Sotheavy says the real benefit is helping the farmers.

“The benefit was basically for the farmers so they can sell whatever they plant and help them with techniques in growing. For the buyers, they can buy and help support local products of good quality.

“We are a group of youths and we didn’t want anything besides inspiring the locals to grow and through us, you don’t need the middlemen. From the buyer to the farmers, they can directly contact each other,” she says.

The team is also focused on doing more field trips for research. “The most important thing is that we want to encourage farmers to continue planting and let them know that they can supply the agricultural demand of the country.

“Looking ahead, we don’t want to be just a group who helps to pass on information. We hope to help them by personally following up. We hope to see our agriculture self-sustain our country. If we enhance local farming, we may be able to reduce imports.

“We just want to encourage people to support local products because if we don’t, they won’t have the motivation. So we want to help each other,” Sotheavy says.

Ministry dismisses protestors, says they lack legal basis for land claims

The Ministry of Land Management yesterday said that the villagers who came to protest outside their offices in the capital over land disputes either had already had resolutions delivered or lacked any legal basis for complaint.
The statement came after over 800 villagers came in five different groups from  Koh Kong province, seeking intervention.

The first group consisted of 15 families who live in Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel district and are seeking invention over a land dispute with Heng Huy Agriculture Group Co Ltd.
However, the ministry said that they already found a solution for them on January 22, with only one villager – named Pav Nhoung – not accepting the deal.

The second group consisted of 197 families who live in Sre Ambel district’s Chi Khor Krom commune, who are also seeking intervention over a land dispute with the same company.

The ministry said that the 15 families had already withdrawn their complaint and could not resubmit and the other families did not have the correct land ownership documents to have any claim on the land in question.

The third group consisted of 743 families who live across six communes in Sre Ambel district, who are seeking intervention over land disputes with Koh Kong Plantation Co Ltd and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co Ltd.

The ministry said the issue has already been resolved with the company and that villagers who are landless should apply to the ministry to ask for a social land concession.
The fourth group consisted of 19 families who the ministry also suggested apply for
the social land concession.

The fifth group consisted of 33 families seeking intervention over a land dispute with Union Development Group Co Ltd.

The ministry said that a resolution has been found for 13 families already and talks with the other 20 families are still ongoing.

“Overall, the demands of the groups have either been met or lack a legal basis for a resolution,” the ministry statement said.

Protestors initially gathered in front of the Ministry of Land Management in Chamkar Mon district and had planned to continue on foot to the house of Prime Minister Hun Sen near the Independence Monument, however, they were blocked by authorities.

Pav Nhoung, a villager from Kong Kong province, said that they went to gather in front of the ministry on World Peace Day in order to ask for help to resolve their land disputes, under the theme “No land rights, no peace.”

“We urge the Minister of Land Management to help solve our land disputes,” he said.

According to a joint statement by the protesting villagers, in order to mark the International Day of Peace under the theme “No Land Right, No Peace”, the   protestors jointly submited land petitions to the ministry addressing their land disputes.

They also pledged to work collectively within their networks and share the challenges of the negative impacts of land loss, human rights violations, climate change and the lack of food security in response to the common needs and concerns felt nationwide.

Koh Kong land disputes largely ‘resolved’

The Ministry of Land Management, Urban planning and Construction said some protesters who claimed to represent 1,217 families allegedly involved in land disputes with four companies in Koh Kong province have no legal basis to seek more compensation.

The ministry said some of the land disputes had already been resolved by relevant authorities.

The response came after five groups of protesters gathered to seek a solution at the ministry on Monday.

In a letter issued hours after the protest, the ministry said the groups were from Sre Ambel, Thma Bang and Botum Sakor districts in Koh Kong.

Some of them, it said, claimed to have been involved in land disputes with Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co Ltd, while others were allegedly locked in a row with Heng Huy Agriculture Group and Union Development Group Co Ltd (UDG).

The letter said some residents had no names to lay claim to the land because they did not fill out fact sheets as announced by the ministry in 2017. Some, it said, had no ownership documents.

Some of the families demanded land registration, while others requested they be granted social land concessions. Some others, it said, demanded the return of their land.

“Thirty-three families filed complaints to demand land from UDG. Having checked it, the ministry found that 13 families had already received solutions. Another 20 families were not among affected residents,” the letter read.

The groups also included residents from other provinces, including Tbong Khmum and Svay Rieng, who demanded a solution to land dispute in their respective provinces.

They blocked a road in front of the ministry and demanded to meet Minister Chea Sophara.

However, Phnom Penh municipal police forces broke up the gathering and instead allowed them to stage a sit-in on the roadside. They eventually returned home later that day after delivering their petitions.

Sam Vuthy, who claimed to represent 33 families allegedly involved in a land dispute with UDG, said they had lost a total of 279ha to the company.

While acknowledging that some of the 33 families had received a solution, he said it was not a proper compromise given the size of the land they had lost to the company.

He said some of the residents received only 1-2ha as part of a solution reached in 2010. Some others received land measuring 24m by 80m, while others, whom he claimed had lost between 8ha to over 10ha, received only $400 to $500 instead of land.

“I have 9ha, but it [UDG] gave me only $480 and gave me back 2.5ha. If we refused to take it, we will get nothing at all. At that time, they evicted us from our land. They used Military Police, security and environment forces to evict us,” he said.

Bun Sarin, a 56-year-old who claimed to have lost 12ha to UDG, said he had land documents to prove his ownership.

He said the documents were recognised by village and commune authorities. He also received a letter from the company recognising his land ownership when it offered compensation.

“The documents were certified by the authorities. The land has clear boundaries and thumbprints between people having land adjacent to each other.

“They asked the authorities to acknowledge the thumbprints. Now, we demand the company and relevant ministries provide land for us in compensation. But if they want to offer financial compensation, there need to be negotiations based on market prices,” he said.

Chhim Saphan, a 65-year-old who claimed to represent 843 families, said they renewed their protests after submitting their petitions to the ministry many times to no avail.

“The main purpose that we come today is to ask [Sophara] when he will solve the disputes for us. We want an answer. If we don’t get a response as to when the dispute will be solved, we will go back to stay on our respective land as a last resort.

“We set up tents because [the firm]has stopped growing sugar cane on the land since the past four to five years already,” he said.

Saphan said before the dispute started in 2009, the families had a total of 1,720ha. He claimed they had grown rice and other crops on the land since the 1980s and had ownership documents recognised by village and commune authorities.

Botum Sakor district governor Hak Leng declined to provide details of the land dispute involving the 33 families, saying the row started before he took office.

“This is an old case left behind since the last two governors, so I cannot comment on it. The land management ministry knows it better than us because citizens have long filed complaints with it,” he said.

Ta Noun commune chief Yoeng Vang Vireak could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Am Sam Ath, the head of monitoring for rights group Licadho, said while he acknowledged that the land dispute in Koh Kong had already been solved by the provincial authorities and the ministry several times, he called for a speedy solution to the remaining cases.

Citing affected residents, he said some had not received proper solutions while others had received no compromise at all. The ministry, he said, had responded either by saying the protesting villagers did not have enough documents or that the disputes had already been solved.

He urged the ministry to get to the bottom of the matter and provide a solution acceptable to all parties.

“We have to look into the root cause of the problems faced by each family, so they can be solved immediately. Once we figure it out, we can allow them to come in and solve the problems instead of letting it linger for too long,” he said.

Thong Chan Dara, the Koh Kong provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, agreed that some of the protesters involved in the Koh Kong land disputes had received a proper solution, though he said some had accepted little compensation because they had no choice.

He said those who received proper solutions lived on the actual land and owned houses in the villages and communes where the dispute arose. He said others who owned houses outside the villages and communes did not receive solutions for the land they lost.

“The authorities said they lacked ownership paperwork. They lacked the documentation because they just occupied the land,” he said.

However, Koh Kong provincial land management department director Ros Viravuth emphasised that the dispute had been solved already. He said some of those who had received a solution incited others to file complaints.

“I don’t know for sure either, but a new group of people who came to seek a solution just claimed they belonged to this group or that group,” he said.

Gov’t urged to protect resources

Some 70 NGO representatives, forest activists and university students signed an open letter urging the government to find ways to prevent and combat forestry crimes more effectively.

In their petition released on Saturday, the group said they had been observing the government’s clampdowns over the past year and found that it “remains reluctant to protect the forest”.

Citing instances, the group claimed the authorities had failed to shutter unauthorised sawmills and other timber-processing facilities across the country.

Meanwhile, the group continued, the owners behind the illegal operations had sent their workers to continue logging activities in various protected areas across the country.

The group also claimed the government’s failure to fully revoke permits for the transportation of timber and other forestry products had allowed for timber smuggling across the border.

They said the opening of timber stock warehouses at various locations in the form of the One-Window Service – which was introduced to expedite the process of paperwork – had exacerbated smuggling and made it easy for companies to obtain permits for the transportation of their illegally logged timber.

The One-Window Service, they alleged, had allowed for collusion between the relevant authorities and timber traders.

Forest activist Heng Sros called on the government to shut down all businesses dealing in timber from protected areas.

He said without citing sources that the government’s revenues generated from the timber business over past years were less than donors’ funds allocated for environment protection in the Kingdom.

The revenues, he claimed, were also less than those generated from the Kingdom’s carbon sales and eco-tourism industry.

“We’ve found that the export of luxury wood to Vietnam, which is not on a small scale, amounted to half a million cubic metres a year. The timber was exported by three companies in Pursat province and some other firms in Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear,” he said.

He urged the government to prevent timber the businesses from clearing natural forests in all forms, stop issuing licences and timber export permits, and shutter sawmills and all timber-processing facilities across the country.

Som Taing Y, a 20-year-old student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), said he was concerned about the ultimate loss of the Kingdom’s natural resources, which he said contributed to climate change.

“I’ve visited forest communities in Mondulkiri and witnessed the destruction. They [loggers]cleared forest and transport timber [for export]every day. Forest activists alone cannot stop them.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

But Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said on Sunday the government remained committed to strict enforcement and natural resource protection.

He called on the public to join the government in the fight against illegal logging and conservation of the Kingdom’s natural resources and biodiversity.

“The government has been strengthening the implementation of the law. Offenders involved in natural resource crimes have been arrested according to legal procedures,” he said.

Eng Hy, the spokesman for the National Military Police and National Committee for Prevention and Crackdown on Natural Resource Crimes, told The Post on Sunday that the relevant authorities had done their part to enforce the law but could not act beyond their mandate.

“The committee’s responsibilities are to prevent and combat forestry crimes. So if they [timber firms]follow the law, we have no right to close their sawmills. I encourage those activists to please send their requests to the local authorities or relevant ministries,” he said.

The Post could not reach Srey Vuthy, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, or and Keo Omalis, the government delegate in charge of Forestry Administration, for comment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently laid out natural resource protection measures, including the cancellation of permits for the transportation of timber out of land concessions and the annulment of licences for companies failing to follow the law and their contracts.

Hun Sen has also authorised relevant authorities to freeze the assets of anyone found to be involved in forestry crimes and to carve their names on a stone at the locations where their logging materials are destroyed.

LEFT WITH NOTHING

From southeastasiaglobe: With the backing of the world’s development agencies, Cambodia’s microfinance institutions stand accused of driving the nation’s most vulnerable ever deeper into debt – forcing them to sell off their land when the time comes to collect.

Standing at the threshold of her bleached wooden shack, Heng Hong is preparing her evening meal. Faded blue petals tumble across her pyjamas, echoing the paler shade encroaching at the edges of her irises. Along the dry dirt road in Cambodia’s Kampong Speu province, a line of fraying eucalyptus cast white shadows against the sky. 

Despite the dinner bubbling on the stove and the faded paintings plastered to the walls, though, this is not Hong’s home. Her home was lost almost a decade ago, when the banks came to collect. 

“About ten years ago, I put down the land title to my house at ACLEDA Bank,” she told Southeast Asia Globe. “For Sathapana Bank, I had my neighbours take the loan in my stead, the ones who weren’t in any debt. I borrowed their land titles to take a loan at Sathapana.”

Living on the outskirts of Kampong Speu’s Kong Pisei district, Heng Hong is one of many Cambodians who have had to sell off her land to service microloan debt. Photo: Paul Millar

All up, Hong borrowed almost $3,000 from different financial institutions. The first payment went towards a motorised tuk-tuk for her husband. The second, she took out when he accidentally struck a pedestrian, settling the matter with borrowed cash before it turned ugly. The third, when her nephew begged her to help fund his installation business in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, proved too much for her to repay.

“My former neighbours didn’t want me to sell the house, but I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “I had no way to pay back the loan. For ACLEDA I only had to pay three more months, but the staff there complained that I was always late. It was true, but I was still hurt by that.” 

Her nephew’s mother has since died, and with her the last link between Hong and the man who drove her back into debt. 

“We’ve lost contact with each other since my sister died,” she said. “Now he still owes me hundreds of dollars, but I can’t afford to go to Phnom Penh and ask for the money.”

Blind in one eye, her face is still swollen from a moto accident that shattered her wrist and pulled her cheekbones out of place. At her feet, her grandchildren tear apart packets of uncooked instant noodles, the dry food splintering between their teeth. 

“I don’t have any land titles anymore,” she said. “This land I’m living on, I don’t have the rights – but I asked permission to live on land from the local monks, the village chief and the district chief.” 

Hong is far from the only Cambodian to have been ruined by debt. A new report on Cambodia’s microfinance industry released by human rights group LICADHO and local land rights organisation Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) details what it describes as systematic land loss and human rights abuses as indebted farmers are forced to sell off their property at a fraction of its value after defaulting on their loans.

Detailing the activities of the nine largest microfinance institutions (MFIs) operating in Cambodia including ACLEDA, Sathapana Bank and PRASAC, the report accuses the industry of forcing poor Cambodians into debt bondage, forced land loss, homelessness, child labour and malnutrition. 

For many Cambodians across the Kingdom, debt has become an essential part of life. The report claims that at the beginning of the year, roughly 2.4 million Cambodians held a grand total of more than $8 billion in outstanding microloans – a staggering one-third of the nation’s entire GDP. The average debt size, more than $3,000, is the highest in the world. Factoring in the informal sector of private lenders, the true weight of unpaid debts in the Kingdom is likely much higher. 

But the sheer number of Cambodians taking out loans to support themselves is just the beginning. The report paints a damning picture of a profit-hungry industry preying upon households unable to pay back the money they’ve borrowed – and strong-arming them into selling their land when they finally default. 

“Land prices are the single most important factor for the MFI market right now”

Anonymous MFI executive

“Over the course of three weeks of field work, researchers interviewed 28 households whose members had suffered multiple and/or serious human rights abuses as a result of MFI debt,” the report stated. “Of these 28 households, 22 had experienced a coercive land sale; 13 had engaged in child labour; 18 had a family member migrate due to debt; and 26 had eaten less or lower quality food in order to make loan payments.” 

Much of the problem lies in the fact that much of the debt taken on by Cambodian families – overwhelmingly the nation’s rural poor – is lent against their land titles, which are held by MFIs as collateral. The land in question – usually fertile fields that are the livelihood of many Cambodians living in the provinces – often far exceeds the size of the loan in value, a fact that doesn’t deter many MFIs from requiring multiple land titles in return for a loan. 

Land grabs are nothing new to Cambodia, with clashes between local communities and large corporations granted sweeping agricultural concessions a source of tension and even violence as security forces push protesters off the land they refuse to leave. But unlike forced evictions carried out with naked brute force, some Cambodians who take out loans are left with little choice but to sell off their own properties – or risk being dragged before the courts. 

At the beginning of 2019, roughly 2.4 million Cambodians held a grand total of more than $8 billion in outstanding microloans. Photo: Nicolas Axelrod / SEA Globe

And as land prices continue to climb, the problem will only get worse.

“Land prices are the single most important factor for the MFI market right now,” one MFI executive told researchers.

Ouch Sidoum, chief of Khrang Khnorng village in Kampong Speu’s Kong Pisei district, knows only too well what it’s like to live in debt. Wearing just black exercise shorts and a black-and-gold scarf knotted around his waist, his pen stabs at the wooden table with each word, ticking boxes only he can see. Across his chest, arching Khmer script sits softly just beneath his skin. 

There are 1,040 people in his village, he tells us, and more than 65% of them have taken out loans from MFIs. Of that number, three quarters had been from ACLEDA – one of two major microfinance institutions that have set up shop in the rural town.  

“If someone takes out a loan and can’t repay, the company comes to me and I talk to them,” he said. “I have the companies postpone the deadline.”

The companies in question are not always as understanding. The report alleges widespread accounts of coercion on behalf of increasingly ruthless MFI officers, who use the land titles as leverage to pressure debtors to sell their precious property at a fraction of its market value. More troublingly, the report claims that in a number of instances local village- and commune-level authorities – men much like Sidoum – use their position to act as enforcers on behalf of the companies. These standover tactics were corroborated by two MFI executives who spoke to the researchers on condition of anonymity. 

“In one case, a village chief from a neighbouring village offered an MFI client a private loan in exchange for two land titles, and then sold her land titles and forged her thumbprint without her consent when she was unable to repay her debt,” the report stated. “In another case, a villager reported that the commune chief had called in other MFI borrowers who were late on their payments, and she was so afraid of being summonsed that she sold her land in order to avoid a late payment.” 

“The average wage in Cambodia is still limited. If their house needs urgent repair or somebody in the family fell sick, there’s no way we can find that much money in such a short period.”

Village chief Ouch Simoun

Despite acting as middlemen to verify land titles for new loans, these officials are not free from the debt cycle themselves. Eight years before becoming the village chief, Sidoum took out a $10,000 loan from ACLEDA. Now, he is $20,000 in debt. Every month, he pays back $570 to keep his creditors at bay. 

“It would be such an embarrassment as a leader to have my house sold in order to pay back the loan,” he said. “Before, I had my children’s support, but now they are all married.” 

This, too, has been a common solution to the mounting debt that many Cambodian families find themselves in. Unable to earn enough to pay down their debt and unwilling to sell the land they need to survive, many families pull their children from school and set them to work in the Kingdom’s fields or garment factories. Others send them abroad, hoping they can earn enough on the decks of a Thai fishing boat or labouring in the belly of a building site to pay off their parents’ loans.

“My youngest daughter left school in grade nine,” Sidoum said. “She was afraid of people, and she couldn’t stand going to school, so I decided to let her stop and work as a garment worker. But she couldn’t earn enough to support the family – she’s still afraid of people. Often, she can’t go to work.” 

Despite sharing multiple horror stories of families forced to sell everything to pay off their debts, Sidoum said that most people in his village were grateful to have the MFIs – an indication of how strapped many Cambodians are for cash, and of the lack of anything like a social safety net for the country’s poorest.

“The average wage in Cambodia is still limited,” he said. “If their house needs urgent repair, or a child is marrying, or somebody in the family fell sick, there’s no way we can find that much money in such a short period.”

Cambodians should not require predatory loans to access basic services which are supposed to be provided by the government, such as healthcare”

LICADHO director Naly Pilorge

Sokha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is no exception. The ageing widow described how she turned to MFIs to cover the costs of the crises that had hit her family. 

“My husband died when my youngest daughter was seven,” she said. “He was a soldier. Around eight years ago, he was wounded in an explosion after another soldier stepped on a buried bomb.”

The shrapnel stayed in his body for years. When it finally killed him, she said, the lieutenant responsible for ensuring his family was compensated for his years of service took the money and left. They never heard from him again.

Instead, Sokha was one of the many villagers Southeast Asia Globe spoke to who had witnessed a fleet of microfinance officers sweeping across the countryside in search of fresh clients. Facing their own monthly lending quotas and pressure from their superiors to ensure the debts are paid, these young men and women have been accused of encouraging clients to take out fresh loans from third parties rather than default on their existing loans, dooming them to an ever-deepening cycle of debt. 

In response to the report, Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA) chairman Kea Borann slammed the study as unrepresentative of the industry as a whole.

“The CMA takes very seriously any reports of unethical or predatory lending practices and we will work with our members to investigate the case studies presented in the report,” he said.

“Microfinance has been an integral part of Cambodia’s economic growth and has contributed to a reduction in poverty levels from 47% of the population in 2007 to 13.5% of the population in 2014 according to World Bank data.”

“A year ago I got into an accident and broke my right arm.They told me to come back to the hospital to fix the fracture but I can’t go. If I go to Phnom Penh, there will be no income for a day”

Heng Hong

The report listed ten instances of loan officers signing up new clients despite having every reason to believe that their targets lacked a stable livelihood to repay – or worse, had already been forced to take out informal loans to pay off their first MFI debt.

So when her daughter fell sick, leaving Sokha with no option but to take out a loan to pay for her treatment, she knew exactly who to speak to. Despite driving herself into debt to pay the clinic, the doctors could only do so much. Now, her daughter remains in the care of the monks who live at the foot of the mountain, praying over her every day for her recovery. 

As macabre as it may sound, Sokha is one of the lucky ones. With four daughters working in the windowless garment factories that line Kampong Speu’s highways and two sons-in-law driving tuk-tuks for a living, she has always been able to pay back the money she has borrowed. 

Hong has had no such fortune. 

“One of my boys has been in jail for drugs charges for more than a year – within eight months he will be out,” she said. “Before he was imprisoned, he was a labourer. His wife is a garment worker. I used to receive some support from them but after he got charged, they got divorced. I hardly ever visit him because I don’t have the money to do so. Ever since he’s got charged, I’ve only visited him twice.”

Like many working-age women in the district, two of her daughters work in a garment factory. The third is eight months pregnant.

“They say the baby has a big head and that she needs surgery in order for her to give birth,” she said. “But we can’t afford the surgery. Another one of my daughters gave birth to a premature baby a month ago. It died just four hours after birth. We buried it in the yard.”

It’s a precarious life. Stripped of her land title, she can no longer borrow the money she needs to support her and her family. 

“A year ago I got into an accident and broke my right arm,” she said. “I went to Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh, who treated me for free. They told me to come back to the hospital to fix the fracture but I can’t go. If I go to Phnom Penh, there will be no income for a day.”

With the Kingdom lacking any real healthcare or social safety net to speak of, Cambodians are becoming increasingly reliant on MFIs and private insurance companies to keep them afloat in times of crisis. LICADHO director Naly Pilorge, said that Cambodians should not have to risk bankruptcy just to survive.  

“We are not calling for MFIs to stop lending money, we are calling for them to stop abusing human rights and engaging in unethical practices,” she said. “Cambodians should not require predatory loans to access basic services which are supposed to be provided by the government, such as healthcare. In other countries with microfinance sectors, other forms of collateral are used for microfinance loans that go toward business operations. The effect of not requiring land titles as collateral would be that borrowers feel less pressure to sell their land in order to resolve their debt.”

Instead, the report calls for international development agencies who have ploughed billions into funding developing nations’ microfinance sectors to invest in community-led financial programmes less driven by the bottom line. 

“We recommend a system that provides access to capital but does not seek to indebt people in an unsustainable way or require vulnerable borrowers to lose their land and suffer from human rights abuses,” Pilorge said. “If no action is taken, we expect more human rights abuses to occur at a faster rate. We call on the government, MFIs and their international development partners to take immediate steps to protect and provide relief for Cambodian borrowers.”

Activists fight hated land-grabs in Cambodia

From Asia Time: In a rare ruling, a court in Cambodia has decided to acquit a Spanish environmental activist charged with incitement, the state’s default accusation against most forms of protest.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), stood accused of acting as an accomplice to three Cambodian activists who were arrested for protesting about sand-dredging in the coastal province of Koh Kong.

The four were charged with incitement and threatening to destroy private property, but in its ruling on August 22, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Gonzalez-Davidson not guilty.

“We are still waiting to see if the prosecutor appealed the decision,” Gonzalez-Davidson said in a text message from Spain, adding that the “circus” might not be over.

The Spaniard’s Cambodian colleagues were convicted on related charges in 2016 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The final 10 months of their sentences were suspended and all three have since been released, but still face large fines.

“I am not aware, in over 15 years of following cases similar to this one (politicians, journalists, NGO workers, activists, etc), of any case where a trial judge declares someone innocent,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

The court summoned him for his trial, but despite his willingness to attend, the Cambodian government has refused to grant him a visa since deporting him in 2015.

Gonzalez-Davidson said this may be a strategy to reduce domestic and international criticism, and used the opportunity to call for the pardon of the three activists who were jailed for the same crime.

Those Cambodian activists, and their colleagues in the field, continue to face grave dangers in their pursuit to protect the environment.

A dam built by Chinese-owned Union Development Group turned a small river in Koh Kong into a large lake that flooded villagers’ farmland. Photo: Nachemson

In Koh Kong, some 210 kilometers west of the capital, MNC activist Lim Kimsor pointed out spots where villages had been replaced by development projects, as the car rumbled down unpaved roads.

“This used to be a village, now it’s for sand-dredging,” said Kimsor, also known as ‘Gigi’.

“That was a river going through farmland. Now it’s a small dam,” she said a few minutes later.

Koh Kong, one of Cambodia’s most untouched provinces, is under dual threat from a Chinese development company and a ruling party senator, Ly Yong Phat, nicknamed “the King of Koh Kong.”

In 2008, Chinese-owned Union Development Group (UDG) was granted 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of land inside a national park for 99 years. The concession was three times the legal limit and included 20% of Cambodia’s total coastline. Farther north, Ly Yong Phat has carved out his own personal sand-dredging fiefdom.

Gigi works with villagers in Koh Kong who are embroiled in land disputes with UDG. Many of them have been forced off their land and given what they feel is inadequate compensation. Some have had their homes burned to the ground, according to local human rights observers. Others report experiencing brutality at the hands of soldiers hired as security by UDG.

The UDG project is meant to include a deepwater port, a resort and casino, Cambodia’s largest runway, and many other yet unidentified projects. The United States is concerned that the project may have military designs. The size and certain characteristics of the runway in particular have caught the attention of military experts.

The massive airstrip under construction within the Union Development Group concession. Photo: Andrew Nachemson.

This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement to allow Chinese navy presence at a base in Preah Sihanouk, the neighboring province. Chinese development there has also caused severe environmental damage and violent land disputes due to skyrocketing property costs.

ReadCambodia, China ink secret naval port deal: report

Gigi’s own family was forced off their land in Phnom Penh in 2007 to make way for a skyscraper, inspiring a lifetime of fighting against environmental damage and injustice.

In 2014, she joined massive protests in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley, which successfully prevented the construction of a Chinese dam. In a movement reminiscent of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota in the US, Mother Nature Cambodia activists and others blocked the road for six months.

“I worked close with the community in that time,” Gigi said, explaining that she helped them coordinate resistance campaigns and brought youths from Phnom Penh to join the protests and learn more about the Areng Valley.

Those demonstrations drew the ire of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ordered Gonzalez-Davidson deported.

Locals ‘most at risk’

“I don’t really have any risk except I have this massive challenge of not being allowed in the country,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, adding that authorities would be too hesitant to kill or imprison a European. He said local activists take far more risks, facing pressure from local officials, arrest, and sometimes even death.

“I’m worried about [being]arrested because I think if the government arrest me then nobody can help the people in the community,” Gigi said. She knows she’s vulnerable to traffic accidents or something more sinister, realizing that powerful people have a reason to silence her, but refuses to give in to fear.
“What I’m scared of more than this is losing the community, the environment, the natural resources in my country,” she said.

Rampant Chinese construction in Sihanoukville has also caused environmental damage. Photo: Andrew Nachemson.

Cambodia’s elites have frequently been accused of exploiting the country’s natural resources for their own benefit — and nowhere is that more apparent than in the sand-dredging industry.

Dredging boats congregate in Koh Kong’s rivers and coastlines, extracting sand for export to countries like Singapore for reclamation and construction. Highly valuable silica sand is also mined from the ground.

The government initially defended this practice by saying there was “too much sand” in the estuaries and rivers. Hun Sen has repeatedly ordered an end to the practice, but evidence suggests it continues.

In 2014 Cambodia reported exporting only 32,400 tons of sand to Singapore, but Singapore’s import records show nearly 17 million tonnes of sand coming in.

Cambodian customs data also show only 4,900 tons of sand sent to Taiwan in 2016, while Taiwan has said it received 535,246 tons that same year.

The practice has had devastating environmental impacts, destroying mangrove forests, decimating fish catch, and collapsing inhabited riverbanks.

In September 2017, Mother Nature activists Hun Vannak and Dim Kundy were arrested after filming sand-dredging vessels belonging to Ly Yong Phat. The men served five months in prison for “incitement” and unauthorized recording.

“It’s really bad, every jail in Cambodia has too many people,” Vannak said. “Four by four meters, more than 20 people sleeping on top of each other. Everyone has skin diseases.”

Vannak said he knows his activism is dangerous, but feels he doesn’t have any other choice. “I know if I stop there will be a lot of injustice, a lot of natural destruction. So I could not live even if I had a good job, a lot of money, a family,” he said.

But Vannak wasn’t always so devoted. A former supporter of Hun Sen, he says he didn’t become curious about activism until after Gonzalez-Davidson was deported.

“I really wanted to know why the government decided to kick out the foreigner who wanted to protect Cambodia,” Vannak said. He traveled to the Areng Valley and learned about government corruption and complicity in environmental crimes.

After this trip, he decided to become more involved, organizing other youths to oppose the Don Sahong dam on the Laos side of the Cambodian border, he recalled. On July 8, 2016, he met with renowned grassroots political activist Kem Ley for advocacy advice. Two days later, Ley was assassinated.

“After that I quit my job and decided to become a full-time activist,” Vannak said.

Illegal logging has also ravaged Cambodia’s jungles, with the country experiencing one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet. NASA satellite imagery revealed that Cambodia lost 1.44 million hectares (3.56 million acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2014.

In 2017, the Environmental Investigation Agency found timber was still being illegally smuggled to Vietnam on an “unprecedented” scale, estimating that 300,000 cubic meters of wood had crossed the border in less than five months.

Murders inspiring other activists

Corrupt officials and politically-connected tycoons benefit from this devastating racket, while those who try to stop them often end up dead. In 2013, beloved environmental activist Chut Wutty was killed in Koh Kong during a confrontation with military police personnel hired as security by a logging company.

Just as Vannak was inspired by Ley’s murder, Gonzalez-Davidson was motivated to honor Wutty’s memory.

“I quit my job in the private sector and I got involved the day I heard Chut Wutty had been killed,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

He said Wutty’s death is a lesson that it’s safer for the activists to confront the “system” rather than individual loggers or poachers in the wilderness. “If you go into the forest and start taking pictures they will not use the system to fight you,” he said.

Killings

This has been proven true time and again since Wutty’s death. In 2015, a forestry ranger and a police officer were killed while investigating illegal logging in Preah Vihear. A Cambodian soldier was among those arrested for the murders.

In January 2018, two forestry officials and a military police escort were killed in a shootout with Cambodian border officials moonlighting as illegal loggers.

Besides frequent connections to the military, illegal logging has also been linked to ruling party senator Mong Reththy and a close Hun Sen ally, tycoon Try Pheap.

Six Mother Nature activists have also been jailed in the last four years. Gonzalez-Davidson said environmental defenders face “constant psychological pressure” from friends, family, colleagues and authorities who want them to quit their activism.

Activists like Gigi often record videos exposing government complicity in environmental damage. The clips are shared widely on Facebook, where some videos have as many as 2.1 million views.

“The moment they appear in a video the wolves start coming,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, claiming the government runs a “well-oiled machine of threatening.”

“I was followed around for quite a long time, they always knew where I was and they were listening to our conversations on the phone,” he added.

While Gonzalez-Davidson said he believes many officials, especially local officials, support Mother Nature’s mission, he said the “culture of paranoia” forces them to intimidate activists on behalf of the central government.

Satellite imagery of the airport runway in Koh Kong province shows it’s long enough for Chinese military aircraft. Source: War on Rocks/ EO Browser/ Twitter

In Koh Kong, Gigi met with displaced villagers at a roadside shop that serves as a pit stop for resting travelers. A young boy grilled corn while his parents sold drinks and other snacks. The back door opened to a dirt yard where small chicks followed their mother as green mountains fanned out in the distance.

The family opened the small store to try to recuperate the economic losses from their seized farmland.

“She lived near the airport,” Gigi explained after speaking to one of the villagers in Khmer. “There used to be so many fruit trees. Pineapple, jackfruit, durian, coconut. But they clear them all.”

After a few minutes of conversation, a man came over and began taking pictures before walking off to make a phone call. “Police,” one of the villagers whispered.

The same villagers staged protests in Phnom Penh earlier that week at the Ministry of Land Management and the Chinese Embassy. Those at the Chinese Embassy were soon surrounded by dozens of police and forcibly removed.

The desolate area where the airport is being built now more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a lush forest interspersed with orchards.

Gigi said a representative from Union Development Group once contacted to her to claim that the area had always been devoid of trees. “I told him I saw the old satellite images on Google Maps and then he never texted me again,” she said.

Vannak called the Cambodian government a “mafia” of people who will sell anything they can for personal profit. “It’s not easy to protect all of it, but we are trying our best,” he said.

He called the court decision finding Gonzalez-Davidson not guilty “amazing,” but inconsistent given the decision to jail the three other local activists.

“I thought that Alex would be found guilty so they can threaten him next time to warn him not to come in Cambodia,” Vannak said, adding that it’s impossible to anticipate Cambodian courts because they don’t rule according to the law.

“They just want to intimidate activists and protect and help the companies,” he said.

This story was shared by Mongabay and run under a Creative Commons agreement. The original report can be accessed here.

Houses Allegedly Destroyed to Make Way for Land-Grab Resettlement

Police and military police have been accused of burning down 11 houses and razing family farms in Kratie province to clear a resettlement site for the evictees of an earlier land conflict.

About 40 representatives of Cheung Kle village in Snuol district’s Pi Thnou commune this week traveled to Phnom Penh to appeal for help. They face forced eviction to make way for a separate group of land-grab victims displaced by the Hun Mana-linked Memot Rubber Plantation.

Yen Sokhalay, one of the representatives, told VOD outside the Land Management Ministry on Wednesday that a mixed force of police and military police, led by deputy provincial governor Khan Chamnan, descended on their land on April 17, burning 11 houses and destroying several hectares of crops.

The families had lived on the land since about 2000, he said.

“We live peacefully and have grown cashew nuts, pepper, rubber and cassava on 744 hectares,” Sokhalay said, adding that local authorities had previously appeared to have acknowledged their rights to the land.

“In 2016, local authorities came to measure the land and produce certificates showing the number of families there and their possession of the land,” he said.

About 70 percent of the 154 affected families were relatives of soldiers stationed nearby, with the area adjacent to the Cambodia-Vietnamese border, he added.

Un Bandol, another villager, said problems began in late 2018 when Kratie’s provincial authorities rushed to resettle the Memot evictees, whose yearslong dispute with the rubber plantation escalated into violence earlier that year as security personnel opened fire and destroyed residents’ homes.

Now facing the ripple effects of that incident, Bandol said families were helpless as authorities destroyed their crops and homes to clear a resettlement site.

One villager had been arrested for resisting, and military police threatened to jail anyone else who got in the way, he said.

“I would like to ask the Ministry of Land Management to intervene and stop the provincial authorities from clearing crops and burning villagers’ houses,” Bandol said. “Now we cannot stay on our farms. If we go back, the military police and deputy governor Khan Chamnan threaten to arrest us. If we dare to prevent them from clearing the crops and burning the houses, they will arrest us.”

On Wednesday — a national holiday to mark International Labor Day — no Land Ministry officials responded to the villagers’ protest and petition.

However, the villagers returned to the ministry on Thursday and had their petition accepted. The ministry promised to visit the area and speak with local authorities within three days, the villagers said.

Yin Botum, deputy director of Kratie’s land management department, said he was not familiar with the case and referred questions to Chamnan, the provincial deputy governor, who was leading the relevant taskforce.

Reporters could not reach Chamnan for comment.

Seung Sen Karona, a spokesman for human rights group Adhoc, said Kratie authorities needed to rethink their proposed solution.

“You can’t take the land that they’re farming and hand it over to another group of villagers,” he said. “That is not a good solution. [They] should reconsider and find another solution after clearly investigating the case.”

The families currently farming the land should be allowed to stay, Sen Karona said.

“These people are all under the leadership of the same government,” he said.

In early April, the displaced Memot villagers themselves protested the offer, saying they could not accept other villagers’ land as compensation.

According to a local commune chief, the Memot plantation’s land was originally granted to Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana in 2008.

As many as 850,000 people in Cambodia have been affected by land conflicts, and up to 400,000 displaced as of 2014, according to one estimate.

Interior Ministry expands freedoms for NGOs

The Interior Minister yesterday told local authorities to allow registered NGOs to conduct their field work without the need of a three-day prior notice as stipulated in a previous policy.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng said the move was meant to strengthen cooperation between NGOs and the government, noting that the policy only applies to NGOs who are registered with the ministry.

“Not only will this strengthen cooperation between the government and NGOs, but also local communities,” Mr Kheng said. “NGOs that are legally registered, along with local communities, have the full right to conduct their activities in the Kingdom of Cambodia in accordance with the law.”

“These organisations do not need to inform local authorities three days in advance prior to conducting their activities like before,” he added.​ Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, yesterday said he welcomed the move, adding that his organisation had requested for the ministry to ease the authorisation process.

“This statement responds to our call. This can normalise the relationship between civil society organisations and the government,” he said. “Freedom of association, assembly and expression can be restored.”

“However, this was only a statement, we will wait to see how it works in practice,” Mr Saroeun added. “One concern about this statement is that community-based organisations that have not registered with the ministry can be barred by local authorities.”

Soeng Sen Karuna, a senior investigator with rights group Adhoc, yesterday said his organisation still faces pressure from local authorities who block their work despite previous statements from the government for the practice to stop.

“If it is now fully enforced by local authorities, then I would welcome this statement,” Mr Sen Karuna said. “However, even when we did follow the ministry’s instruction to inform local authorities three days in advance, local authorities still hindered our operations.”

He noted that the ministry and media must publicise the information to ensure that local authorities are on the same page.

“It seems like when there is a positive statement, local media who favour the government seem quiet,” Mr Sen Karuna said. “They tend to broadcast negative information about NGOs.”

Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak yesterday said local authorities have been informed.

“It is not a big deal, local authorities understand this instruction because it’s been made public in the Khmer language,” Gen Sopheak said.

In March, authorities in Svay Rieng province’s Romeas Hek district prevented the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community from holding a public forum to discuss community development. At the time, local authorities said the group did not have adequate permission.

Theng Savoeung, secretary-general of CCFC, said yesterday that the new policy will facilitate his organisation’s work to conduct community development activities.

“Our organisation is registered with the ministry, we pay taxes and fulfil all legal requirements. But our activities were in the past blocked by local authorities even after we informed them,” Mr Savoeung said. “With this new statement, I believe that it will be easier for us to do our jobs.”