Karen J. Coates in Slate (Photo by Jerry Redfern):
Chhek Sambo works a little farm on the fertile plains stemming from a sacred Cambodian mountain known as Phnom Kulen. For 17 years this tropical plot has given Sambo and her family rice, cassava, mangoes, bananas, lychees, “everything we can eat.” She and her neighbors raise chickens and ducks (free-range) and cows (grass-fed). The land provides her daily sustenance, and farming is the only job she’s ever known. There is nowhere else Sambo would rather be, nothing else she would rather do, than “live here forever,” working this dirt until the end of her days.
But Sambo has a problem: She might lose this land. Like millions of subsistence farmers worldwide, Sambo and the 117 families in her rural community of Skuon have no formal title to their farm fields. And now, someone else wants her 2.5-acre patch.
It’s a familiar story in Cambodia, where land disputes have disrupted the lives and livelihoods of half a million people. Many of the affected are small-scale farmers who grow their own food. “Without land, they no longer have the means to provide themselves with the basic requirements for a decent life,” according to Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group LICADHO.
Many land feuds in Cambodia begin on paper but lead to physical fights. The worst end in death. Villagers often protest against forced evictions, but they typically fail when faced with police or soldiers. “The people have knife and fork, but the soldiers have gun,” says Chao Leak Vanna, a LICADHO human rights monitor.
This is a global humanitarian crisis. An unprecedented worldwide scramble for land—predominantly for agriculture—has spurred a new era in the “geopolitics of food scarcity,” according to Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. That scramble escalated dramatically with the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent rise in food prices. Countries that export food began to limit how much they would sell. Countries that import food “panicked,” Brown writes, and started buying up or leasing other countries’ cheap land on which to produce their own food. Hardest hit were poor countries like Cambodia, where the elite eat abundantly and the poor already struggle to feed themselves.