“Our people have been transformed from rice and slash-and-burn farmers into workers and owners of the family rubber plantation. A collector of wood resin with unstable income has become a rubber plantation worker in the community who can generate adequate, stable revenue to support his or her own family.” These were the words with which Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the contentious Tumring Rubber concession in August 2001 and promised to bring an end to the villagers’ conflicts with the logging companies active in the area. What the villagers did not know at that time was that the Tumring rubber concession was not the end, but rather the beginning of a new era of the timber business. Under the guise of agricultural development and poverty reduction, the concession turned the area into a massive centre of large-scale illegal logging [1,2].
The Tumring commune is comprised of eight villages, located at the frontiers of Prey Lang forest, one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most biodiverse lowland evergreen forests. Most of the villagers are ethnic Kuy indigenous, who in the past had been practising low-land shifting and permanent rice cultivation. Resin tapping from dipterocarp trees provided a key source of income, as well as many other livelihood resources such as wine, rattan, herbs or wildlife, supplied by the forest to the communities .
Three logging concessionaires were active in the area before the rubber concession was granted: Colexim Enterprise, Mien Ly Heng, and GAT International . Conflicts between the villagers and the companies who commonly logged villagers’ resin trees were frequent at that time and produced severe social impacts. Security guards frequently intimidated the villagers. Cases of rape were reported, as well as destruction of villagers’ farm houses and rice fields. One resident from Ronteah was killed by a security staff of Colexim Enterprise . In 2002, some NGOs started to support the villagers and complaints were made to provincial and national government officials .
Around that time, the government started to set up the Tumring Rubber concession. In October 2000, the government gave permission to reallocate about 6,200 ha from the logging concessions to the new rubber project. While it was argued that the area was ‘degraded’ by the logging concessions, several studies indicated that, in fact, it contained high value timber stocks. More than 4,300 ha of the area were to be managed by the state-owned Chup Rubber Plantation Company. About 900 ha of land was to be allocated to families living within the concession area and about 900 ha of land was reserved to be awarded to families for rubber growing [1;2;3;4]. The related sub-decree was signed in 2001, and Prime Minister Hun Sen personally gave an inaugural speech in August 2001, in which he emphasised the role of the rubber plantation for ‘re-balancing the environment’, for poverty reduction and for economic development. He also promised the concession would bring an end to the conflicts with the logging companies, as community forests were to be recognised and land titles would be awarded to villagers .
The plantation was developed with a profound lack of consultation and in absence of proper impact assessments. Access to land was previously not an issue in the area as the forest supplied ample resources. This changed with the conversion of forest areas to the plantation and an influx of labourers from outside, who also demanded land for family farming. As compensation for the land loss, villagers received 3 ha of land, while previously they possessed 5 to 7 ha. Shifting cultivation land was not recognised as lost farming land [1;3]. While the villagers appreciated the new roads, a school and a pagoda that were built with support of the project, the rubber plantation caused very strong livelihood and environmental impacts [3;4]. The establishment of the concessions required to clear entirely the dense forest area of more than 4,000 ha, through which people were displaced and dispossessed, agricultural land was destroyed and thousands of resin trees were logged [1;3]. Rice yields dropped, producing problems of food shortage . Wildlife was reduced due to increasing pressures on the forest ecosystem , or shot by security guards . Villagers’ income dropped drastically and was insufficient to cover households needs [1;4]. The plantation also caused many social impacts. Many people from outside moved into the concession area, because the majority of the locals did not want to work for the company. A brothel was established at Khaos village near the plantation office [1;3].
The concession did not stop the logging business in the area, but rather transformed it into a highly organised illegal operation. Despite of a countrywide logging ban in 2002 and the subsequent cancellation of logging concessions, Global Witness reported in 2003 that logging continued inside and outside the concession area and that the Seang Keang Import Export Company, an enterprise with close ties to Cambodia’s ruling elites, took over logging in the concession area . Forests inside were cleared for the plantation, and logs from outside the concession were laundered through the concession, arguing that it was a by-product of the authorised land conversion. The logs were processed in the Kingwood Factory that was associated to the wife of the Prime Minister’s cousin. The area turned into one of the biggest illegal logging operations in Cambodia [1,2].
Villagers’ protests were ongoing for many years. Complaint letters from several villagers were sent to provincial authorities. They included requests to maintain their old land they inherited from grandparents, rather than to receive other 3 ha of land that sometimes was also of bad quality . Villagers urged to turn to rubber tapping expressed concerns that they had to wait for 7 years to get the first economic returns . Resistance to the plantation was particularly strong in Ronteah village, were a villager was previously killed by a Colexim security guard. At some occasions, residents aimed to block and stop bulldozers from forest clearing, but the security guards responded with gun shots. On November 30, 2002, representatives on behalf of 1,300 people from 21 villages affected by Colexim sent a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture, urging them to forbid use of weapons in the area . Local activists faced strong repression and the manager of the Seang Keang Company was alleged of attempted murder of two forest activists .
The logging of the resin trees, which were a central source of income, caused much hardship for the villagers. As the village chief of Ronteah village stated “most of our income comes from non-timber forest products such as resin oil, vines and wild fruits… We want to save them, because without them we cannot survive.” (March 2002 ). Much of the forest in the surrounding area is now lost to several plantations, of which many have been alleged to be involved in illegal logging inside and outside their concession area. But also resistance of local forest activists has expanded across the forest and led to grassroots mobilisations that were later on formalised as the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN).