By Chris Arsenault
PHNOM PENH, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When bulldozers arrived in Cambodia's rural Chi Khor Krom commune, farmer Phao Nheung said she had no idea why until they ploughed into the rice fields and she realised they had come for her land.
Residents of the ramshackle community on the highway about 160 km (100 miles) west of Phnom Penh say they were never told any details of the deal the government had signed with investors who wanted to grow sugarcane on the land.
"We lost everything. Now we don't have enough to eat," Nheung, 40, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
One of more than a dozen farmers who say they lost their land in the 2009 transaction, Nheung said she was left with just one of her five hectares (12.4 acres) of land.
Investment in land has played a key role in reducing poverty and generating economic growth in Cambodia, but campaign groups say too many large land deals are not made public.
Land investments signed without input from residents who do not know the terms of the deals have been occurring across Cambodia for decades and have displaced more than 770,000 people since 2000, human rights lawyers say.
Between 1993 and 2013, more than 10 percent of Phnom Penh's population was displaced to make way for re-development projects as rapid economic growth transformed the capital.
Now campaign groups are pushing the government and private investors to release details of contracts for large land deals.
Residents must know details of promises to investors so they can hold companies to account, said Tek Vannara, director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, a rights group in the capital.
This will also help them follow up on promises of jobs, environmental monitoring or compensation such as alternative land plots for displaced farmers, he said.
The government had begun publishing details of contracts online, as well as the location of land concessions but stopped doing so in 2009, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We don't know why the government stopped putting this information on their website," he said. "We need transparent (contract) information for consulting with communities."
The government publishes notice of new land deals in its official Royal Gazette, but extracting detailed information about the terms of contracts is difficult, said Am Sokha from the Community Legal Education Center, a Phnom Penh-based NGO.
"The local people never get documents," Sokha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This fuels rumours and speculation in areas where deals are signed, adding to confusion for villagers and making it harder for them to mount a defence against displacement, Sokha said.
Cambodia's Ministry of Commerce, a government body normally responsible for managing contracts with investors, did not respond to interview requests made in writing or in person.
However, other government officials have said the number of land conflicts has been falling recently in Cambodia, where the state is working to mediate disputes and continues to provide millions of new formal title deeds to Cambodians.
This observation has been backed by rights groups.
In a bid to provide information to local residents, legal scholars and activists have tried to locate contracts for land deals - sometimes with the help of whistleblowers.
Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, a campaign group working with Cambodians displaced by urban projects, said he experienced this situation first-hand.
When more than 3,000 families faced eviction to make way for luxury apartments in the capital's Boeung Kak Lake, Phearum's group helped residents fight for new houses or compensation for their properties, which lacked official title deeds.
Under the contract between the government and the developer, residents were initially given three options: $800 cash compensation, housing on the city outskirts or upgrading of their homes near the site in central Phnom Penh.
But Phearum said officials never informed residents about the third possibility.
"Someone working for the government leaked us the contract and we analysed it with our lawyers," he said. "The problem is often a lack of clear information."
Once campaigners realised that staying near the site was an option in the contract, they organised more protests. Residents demanded to stay and the government offered higher compensation to families who had continued to resist.
Eventually, most former residents of Boeung Kak Lake - where luxury buildings are still under construction - accepted new land or compensation from the government, he said.
The lack of public information on contracts for large land deals extends beyond Cambodia, said Jesse Coleman, a researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) in New York, who tracks the transactions.
Coleman said 28 countries disclose some information about oil, gas or mining contracts.
Only Liberia has consistently disclosed the terms of its agriculture and forestry deals although other countries are starting to publish land contracts, said Coleman.
"Disclosure of land contracts can empower project-affected communities, giving them more leverage to assert their rights and demand accountability for the impacts of these deals," Coleman said.
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault, editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)