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Cambodia's great land grab: going hungry in a green and pleasant land

Imagine if more than half of Britain's countryside, our 'green and pleasant land', had been bought up by private companies, many of them foreign, against the wishes of our local farmers. 

Now suppose that the food produced on these mega farms is largely intended for export not domestic consumption. 

And finally, understand that 40% of our children are chronically malnourished.

Hard to picture? That is exactly the situation in Cambodia.

Land rights

Land is a vital resource here, where over 75% of the population depend on agriculture for survival. 

Yet governmental policy has allowed half the country to be bought up by private companies. Poor rural farmers are losing their right to land while the government benefits to the tune of $1 per hectare.

The scale of land grabbing in Cambodia is leaving families hungry, and increasing conflicts in which the poorest often lack the means to defend themselves.

Yom Lay: 'We'd have to eat grass'

Cambodian farmer Yom Lay

Yom Lay is fighting for his family's land

Yom Lay, a 51-year-old farmer, is embattled in a volatile dispute over the few hectares of land that he has been farming for more than a decade.

After Cambodia's brutal civil war drew to a close, Yom Lay and his family settled in a remote region in the north-west of the country and started farming a small plot. 

He received permission by local government authorities in 1997 to occupy the land, but the legal papers were never issued.

'If we lost our land now, we'd only have our labour to sell. We'd become beggars and we'd have to eat grass.'

In 2001, a new law was introduced that was supposed to confer ownership on anyone who had legally occupied land for a period of five years or more - but Yom Lay lacks the papers to prove ownership.

The recent construction of a road into his remote region has opened up the area to corporate and military interest. In addition, there are families who claim the land had been allotted to them by another government scheme in the early 1990s - although they never came and used it.

Yom Lay's tiny farm is just a fraction of the 3,000 hectares being contested here overall. Thousands of families are in a similar situation. 

Fighting for land rights

This bitter dispute with powerful actors has landed Yom Lay in prison before now, but faced with the prospect of landlessness and hunger, he and his family are determined to fight their corner.

Development and Partnership in Action

Christian Aid local partner, Cambodian organisation Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), is helping Yom Lay and his neighbours access legal assistance to defend their case. 

DPA is also lobbying for the fair resolution of many other disputes such as this at the national level, while also urging the government to uphold pro-poor land policies and laws instead of favouring corporate or political interests.

As a result of DPA's support, the dispute over the 3,000 hectares (of which Yom Lay's farm comprises a small part) has been escalated to the Ministry of Land Management, which says it will divide the land between the competing parties. 

Yom Lay and DPA are campaigning for an equitable division that will not plunge families like his into further poverty and hunger.

Global grab, global action

While the scale of the problem in Cambodia makes it an extreme case, land grabbing is a problem worldwide - and it is one of the root causes of global hunger.

Every six days, an area the size of London is being sold or leased to large investors, all too often forcing farmers and communities off their land and leaving them no way to feed their families.


Christian Aid has joined with more than 100 other organisations to form the Enough ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE IF campaign to end global hunger. 

We believe it is not acceptable that one in eight people in the world go to bed hungry every night, and land grabbing is one of the key problems.

The root of the problem

While Christian Aid and partners like DPA in Cambodia can help individual cases like Yom Lay's, wider action is needed to get to the root of the problem, as the IF campaign explains:

'This issue needs to be tackled by global players. The World Bank has a particular role to play in preventing irresponsible 'land grabs' as it supports much investment in this area. 

'The UK can use its G8 presidency to make progress. It should also continue to actively support implementation of the existing, strong UN Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Tenure.'


Make IF happen

By signing up to the IF campaign, you can add your voice to those calling for land rights for the poorest and most vulnerable - for people like Yom Lay. 

Add your voiceYou can add your voice and demand that 'our world is not for sale'.



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