Where will Cambodia find enough land for the next generation?

This question is at the center of a report published by the Cambodian NGO Adhoc on February 14, 2013. Entitled “A turning point?”, the report explains that the Cambodian government will not be able to grant as many land concessions as it has done in the past for almost half of the arable land is now private. The remaining land is made up of protected areas, islands and cancelled concessions, but exceptions to the law become the rule.

Cambodians, who were evicted from Phnom Penh's Boueng Kak lake area, seen holding a rally last November. Pic: AP.

The gap between the law and the reality

In theory, before being granted an economic land concession (ELC), a private owner should meet five criteria regarding land classification, land use planning, impact assessment, resettlement and compensation (ELC Sub-Decree – Article 4). However, Adhoc states that “companies often start clearing the land even before sub-decrees have been issued and contracts have been signed“. For example, in Kratie province, the TTY company did not consult any of the affected people before claiming almost 10,000 hectares to grow cassava. According to the report, “powerful businessmen and officials have been able to benefit from multiple concessions through companies in which they (or they relatives) have shares or hold a management position“.

This is a transition to the case of sugarcane plantations owned by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Senator Ly Yong Phat, who was granted a 10,000-ha concession for his Phnom Penh Sugar Co. Ltd in Kompong Speu province. As of today, 27 villagers are facing charges mostly for encroachement on private property. Six days ago (on Feb 9th), as villagers were demonstrating outside the court to demand the release of a community activist and submit a petition. However, 40 Royal Cambodian Army Forces (RCAF) troops were ordered to quash the protest and the commander threaten to open fire if representatives tried to enter the court to submit the petition. Recently, local media also reported that children were also exploited on these concessions owned by the Phnom Penh Sugar Co Ltd.

Protected areas are already at stake

While the report states that the only land left are protected areas, islands and cancelled concessions, it also refers to a north-eastern province in Cambodia where protected areas have already been vastly exploited.

In December 2012, Adhoc received the information that two Vietnamese companies have been engaging in illegal logging activities, clearing 200 X 3,000 meters and exporting high-value timber to Vietnam. One of the companies had surveyed the land and acknowledged that clearing the land would affect members of the Jarai community leaving in the area. Some of them were told by the local authorities that they would be charged $700 to $800 per ha to obtain titles for their land if they did not change their claim from collective to private land ownership. This classification forbids the community to exercise its right collectively on its land. Early January, the Jarai community found that approximately 1,500 graves have been destroyed – some exhumed – by bulldozers. In exchange, the company agreed to pay $4,000 as a compensation to the community.

Similarly, more than 6,000 ha were granted to the CRCK company to grow rubber over four provinces in Cambodia. This concession encroaches on Prey Lang forest and the company destroyed large tracts of primary, evergreen forest. And the list is now bigger with the projected construction of large dams in Cambodia, putting fish stocks and fisheries at risk when Cambodia is the biggest consumer of freshwater fish in the world.

Cambodian courts are strong with the weak and weak with the strong [...]. The authorities cannot expect to resolve the land crisis this way,” state the report.

Mixed results from governmental initiatives

Aside from protests and conflicts, the results of unregulated development are landlessness and poverty related issues. Adhoc highlights similarities with the 19th century European economic processes involving rural exodus and the transformation of a large part of the peasantry into landless wage-laborers, and states that “the granting of additional concessions despite the moratorium would mean that promises made to private companies are more important than promises made to the Cambodian people“.

On paper, there are means of settling disputes related to land. Victims of land grabbing can seek intervention from various political or administrative officials and their bodies at all levels from the villages to the provinces. When the results of investigations state a dispute over registered land, it must be submitted to the courts. But in reality, Adhoc reports cases where the victims simply lack the resources to initiate the proceedings, where significant imbalances of power between land grabbers and their victims force the latter to accept unfair solutions and where protests are systematically suppressed.

In 2012, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen adopted two measures to solve the “land crisis”. One is aimed to stop granting land concessions and review the exisiting ones (Directive 001), and the other is an accelerated land titling program. However, Adhoc denounces important loopholes. For example, 33 ELCs were granted since may 2012 covering over 208,000 ha since the Directive 001 does not apply to any concessions that was under consideration as of May 2012. And, while hundreds of thousands of families have been granted a new land title through the accelerated program, disputed areas have been left outside the scheme. Adhoc states that: “people who are the most in need of land titles (to protect themselves against eviction threats) will therefore not receive them“.