The Royal Government of Cambodia has recently announced the cancellation of four economic land concessions (ELCs) – granted to Vietnamese rubber enterprises – that threatened to cause irreparable harm to the Prey Lang forest, the largest remaining primary evergreen forest on the Indochinese peninsula.
Given the inherent difficulties in striking a balance between Cambodia’s stated goals of increasing its economic growth and development, and promoting critically needed social stability and upward mobility among its people, the government certainly deserves applause for this decision.
That said, one big step does not a successful journey make.
The course the government set for itself with the passage of the 2001 Land Law, which included the auth-ority to grant economic land concessions, was fraught with the potential for the ill-considered or corrupt granting of concessions and the conflicts that would inevitably result.
There was little likelihood the government would successfully reconcile the competing interests of Cambodia’s people, who hope to retain their lands and livelihoods, and those of private companies, whose only interest in the land is as a means by which to profit from its resources – to the detriment of the country’s delicate ecosystems and beleaguered people.
All too often, the government had favoured these commercial interests over those of the Cambodian people when granting ELCs, ostensibly to promote large-scale, agro-industrial economic development while creating jobs, improving infrastructure and providing sustainable resources.
However laudable such goals are in theory, the practice of awarding ELCs has undoubtedly failed to balance economic development with social and environmental development.
The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Organisation says at least two million hectares, or more than 10 per cent of Cambodia’s land area, has been granted to foreign corporations for logging, mining, agriculture and other development.
According to LICADHO, another local rights group, 50 per cent of Cambodia’s arable land is now controlled by foreign corporations.
Moreover, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation claims that between 1990 and 2010, Cambodia lost 22 per cent of its forest cover.
It has thus grown increasingly diff-icult to argue that the unchecked awarding of economic land concessions to commercial interests has benefited ordinary Cambodians.
There are also failings in the theory – as well as the practice – of granting such concessions.
The government’s flawed “leopard skin” strategy, for example, purports to take into account the presence of villages on areas of land where economic land concessions are to be granted around the villages, with the villages remaining as the “spots”.
Aside from the fact that this approach is rarely adopted, villages risk becoming marooned between vast land concessions, unable to access water supplies, schools, med-ical care, jobs and hunting grounds.
In a sobering recent case, villagers in Stung Treng province have become prisoners on their own land, completely cut off by two economic land concessions – which were granted to Vietnamese and
Chinese companies – from the vital resources they previously enjoyed.
It is hoped the cancellation of the four economic land concessions in Prey Lang forest is an example of the more liberal policies announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 7, when he made assurances that the future awarding of such concessions would be more strictly scrutinised.
If so, this development would serve as a welcome indication that the government has belatedly realised the urgent need to alter its policy.
But further reforms are required, namely:
1) Establishing a transparent mech-anism for approving applications for economic land concessions that conducts full and proper social, economic and environmental surveys, in addition to a transparent online central register, accessible to the public, under which all existing concessions can be scrutinised;
2) Reviewing all existing economic land concessions and cancelling any that are illegal under the Land Law 2001;
3) Instigating a comprehensive and fair process of land titling to prevent further disputes and civil unrest. This would involve drawing up definitive boundaries of what constitutes state private land, state public land, private land, community land and protected land, and absolutely guaranteeing the protection of indigenous communities and their livelihoods, as well as all areas of endangered primary forest, biodiversity, conservation and wildlife;
4) Abandoning the controversial “leopard skin” strategy and amending the Land Law 2001 to prevent several subsidiary companies of the same company group circumventing the 10,000-hectare limit by taking adjacent concessions; and
5) Reforming the judiciary so all parties can have faith in the country’s ability to resolve disputes in a just and transparent manner.
The cancellation of the four concessions in Prey Lang forest is a promising first step along this tricky path, but many more are needed before the government can claim to have solved the problem.
Robert Finch is a legal consultant and Steven Kremer a volunteer at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.