Braving pandemic impact with plots of land

Precious lifeline: Despite rapid urbanisation, about three in four Cambodians live in rural areas and most depend on land for a living. — The Straits Times/ANN

When Covid-19 choked off the tourism that throttles Cambodia’s temple town of Siem Reap, Yu Thy and his wife lost their gardening jobs and headed home to grow something different.

They’ve not looked back.

The switch from hotel gardeners to vegetable farmers has been a rare sliver of good fortune forced on them by a pandemic that has killed nearly 400 Cambodians.

A year after the couple packed up their Siem Reap life and travelled 300km to their village, things have changed so much for the better that they have no plans to go back.

At the root of the decision – a simple, 1.5ha plot allocated under a government-led programme on which the couple now grow vegetables, tend rubber trees and raise chickens.

As most Cambodians struggled to make a living in lockdown, Thy and his wife provided for their family and even made extra by selling their vegetables in central Tboung Khmum province.

Thy is his own boss and sets his own hours – his new life in the rustic Chaem Kravien commune is a world away from Siem Reap, which was thronged with visitors drawn to its world-famous Angkor Wat complex of Buddhist temples.

“We’re very glad that we had a house and land to come back to,” said Thy.

“If we didn’t have land, we would have been badly affected by Covid-19 and would have had to move from place to place selling our labour. We are happy to work on our own land.”

Thy, already earning well from his vegetables, now hopes to expand business by selling chickens and rubber too.

He is among 250 formerly landless people, small landholders or indigenous people in Chaem Kravien who received a residential plot and farmland from the World Bank-backed Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development (Lased) project.

Since 2008, Lased has allocated about 17,000ha to some 5,000 families. More than 3,300 of them now have titles to their land with the rest set to join them after five years’ work.

Despite rapid urbanisation, about three in four Cambodians live in rural areas and most depend on land for a living.

Yet Cambodia has a long history of landlessness, with bloody conflicts over land common after the Khmer Rouge destroyed property records to establish a form of communism in the 1970s.

The impoverished South-East Asian country began issuing Economic Land Concessions (ELC) in 1995, leasing state land to private firms for agriculture and agriculture-based industries to spur economic growth and alleviate poverty.

By 2012, ELCs accounted for more than two million hectares of land, equivalent to more than half the country’s arable land.

The land deals have displaced more than 770,000 people – mostly in rural areas – since 2000, human rights lawyers say.

A moratorium on new ELCs has been effective since 2012 and the government has conducted a review of ELCs, resulting in halving their area with an aim to redistribute the land and promote new forms of investment such as contract farming. — Reuters

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