The National Assembly took its first steps yesterday towards enacting the farmers’ co-operative law, a law the opposition and rights groups say lacks independence and restricts economic freedom.
The law of agricultural community sets the boundaries for the establishment of and the mechanisms to support farming co-operatives.
The first two chapters of the eight-chapter law were passed at the National Assembly.
Chapter two sets out the role of the Government-led Agricultural Community Policy Council (ACPC).
Chaired by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries with representation from the private sector and civil society organisations, the ACPC will offer research, legal and planning support to registered co-operatives.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was comfortable with the general provisions in Chapter One, voted against Chapter Two, asking for amendments to encourage greater independence. “The ministry is involved too much,“ said Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the CNRP.
“There is one council to control the co-operative and that is chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture; we would like to have independent people to chair,” he said. He added that they would like to see a general department established that was independent of the ministry.
Ham Sunrith, deputy director for protection and monitoring at Licadho, expressed concerns that the law was in conflict with the national constitutional law, as it would restrict freedom of establishment – economic freedom – because co-operatives are required to register with the government in order to be eligible.
He said that Article Two of the law limited establishment, function and management and the still-to-be debated Article 19 required communities to register at the Department of Agriculture at provinces or cities to gain legitimacy.
“We are concerned that when it comes to the application [of the law] that farmers will face difficulties in establishing [community groups] due to questions over legality of community.”
In response to Licadho’s concerns over the restriction of establishment, Kem Chenda from the Administrative Affairs Department of MAFF, said the registration costs nothing, and officials needed co-operatives to register because the government would help support their growth. “Don’t worry at all about the registration because it is free,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote at the time of the drafted co-operative law last month, between 2003 and 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has established 375 agricultural communities across the country with 35,630 members and capital of over $2.25 million.
He wrote, “currently, all agricultural communities are playing an important small part in participating in implementing government policies pushing paddy production and milled rice exports.”
Chhay Thou, the director of Neang Teav community in Cheang Sa Village of Chi Kar commune in Tbong Khmum district of Kampong Cham, said his community has been established since 2004 with 40 memberships initially, and so far, the community has 73 members.
He said, “community establishment is easy for all agricultural products, particularly paddy rice, when [we] need to sell, the community calls buyers to negotiate reason-able prices.”
However, he said he did not know how the new law might help farmers because he did not know about the law.