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.
Globally, the rush to turn small family farms into commercial enterprises isn’t aimed at feeding the needy, many policy experts say. As Oxfam reports, two-thirds of agricultural deals with foreign investors take place in chronically hungry countries.
In recent years at least 500 million acres—an area nearly three times the size of Texas—has been sold, leased, or claimed globally.
Sambo says she doesn’t know why a wealthy man wants her land. But commercial cassava farms have sprouted around her village, fueled largely by demand from Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Cassava, or tapioca root, is one of the country’s top exports. It can be processed for use in everything from noodles to glue to pharmaceuticals. Cambodia lacks the facilities for widespread commercial processing, but it has the land to grow the plant.
I sit with Sambo and a couple dozen villagers on slat tables in the shade behind her house—a one-room assemblage of thatch, wood, fish net, plastic tarps, and corrugated metal. There is no electricity here and few possessions, but a row of mango trees droops with heavy green fruits. A mother duck and her ducklings waddle across the yard. Chickens cluck, and roosters crow. A man washes his cow. Everything that happens in this yard, as we chat, pertains to food and survival.
Sambo tells me that securing a land title is the first step toward the freedom to farm and feed herself. The document might not solve all her problems—LICADHO has reported an increase in disputes involving villagers who do have legal land titles—but that piece of paper is the starting point for a legal fight to keep her property. Without it, Sambo has no security and no hope of ever getting it.
At 49, she has always grown her own food. When she was very young, her family and many others practiced shifting cultivation, moving from place to place every few years. The civil war that began in the 1960s disrupted everything for rural Cambodians. Between 1975 and 1979, the genocidal Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia, herding people from cities into the countryside to work as slave farmers. An estimated 1.7 million people died of murder, disease, and starvation. The regime collapsed in 1979 with a Vietnamese invasion, but war still simmered in the countryside. The remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers were driven to the hinterlands, ending up in places like Phnom Kulen. There was “shooting and fighting, landmines,” Sambo says. She has a rough scar where a bullet grazed her leg in a shootout. Her mother was killed in a gunfight during the Khmer Rouge years.
When the fighting finally stopped, a semblance of peace started to emerge. The leader of Sambo’s commune—a collection of neighborhoods or villages—offered this land for farming in 1997. The commune leader offered no documents, no formal titles—and no one thought to ask about them.