The government has slashed about 250,000 hectares of land from 79 economic land concessions (ELCs), forest concessions and wildlife protection concessions and will return it, replete with land titles, to “poor people”, January’s Royal Book says.
The publication, issued on January 17 and obtained yesterday, says the government has asked King Norodom Sihamoni to issue a sub-decree reclaiming the land in 19 provinces from 37 companies including Pheapimex, Casotim and TTY, which are locked in disputes with villagers.
“This is about giving land back to the people,” a line from the Royal Book states, echoing recent statements by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It is a new activity within an old government policy.”
The requests, which were made between last July and January, comprise 37 economic land concessions, 36 concessions in state forests and six in wildlife-protection areas, the Royal Book adds.
After a string of protests, including one in which TTY-hired guards shot four villagers, Hun Sen placed a moratorium on the granting of land concessions last May, although some continued to be granted because of a clause that allowed concessions already in the works to proceed.
Hun Sen deployed thousands of volunteer students to measure land across the country last June. His government has since issued more than 110,000 land certificates to villagers.
It is unclear how many people will benefit from the land returns, but Kuch Veng, a representative of Kbal Trach commune, in Pursat province’s Krakor district, said student volunteers had already issued land titles to villagers in a dispute with Pheapimex, a company owned by Choeung Sopheap, the wife of Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin.
The government has generally forbidden student volunteers to measure disputed land, but in this instance the company had agreed to the process beforehand, Veng said.
“Most of the people have received their land title, and the company does not dare to trouble them anymore,” he added.
A study published in November by NGO Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee said the government’s policy on ELCs in recent years has been hampered by a lack of transparency and has favoured the “small domestic elite”, while poor governance has meant companies that violate the law or their contracts have not been punished.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for human rights group Licadho, said returning the land to villagers and providing them security through land titles would build up confidence and stability, enabling agriculture to flourish.
“This is something that will reduce land disputes across the country,” he said.
Licadho figures updated last month say more than 2.1 million hectares of land had been granted to private companies, including more than 106,000 hectares last year.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay yesterday congratulated the prime minister for helping poor people – but said the timing of the land return was motivated by a desire to win votes ahead of July’s National Election.
“What the government is trying to do is a kind of propaganda,” Chhay said. “They have been abusing people all these years – so much land has been taken away – now they’re giving it back and getting reward for it.
“I believe the government should fully respect the ownership of the people and give back all the land it has taken.”
For the government’s land-return initiative to be effective, Chhay added, authorities in rural areas needed to ensure companies were honouring their contracts and abiding by the law.
“They’re the ones who provide information to the prime minister,” Chhay said. “Often, this information does not reflect what’s happening in these areas. It’s important for the prime minister to ensure the policy is fully implemented and listen to the people, not depend on his corrupt officials.”
Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said the government’s decision to return the land showed the economic land concessions issue did not have to be complicated.
“It shows that these concessions were illegal,” he said, referring to wildlife protection land and state forest that would be returned. “That land, the forest and state public land, should remain as such. It shouldn’t belong to anyone.”
Concessions relating to normal farmland remained just as straightforward, he said.
“The land law will protect the people,” he said. “If villagers are making use of it, that would make any ELC illegal or not properly granted.
“[The government] should have a social impact assessment to acknowledge whether people are using the land.”
Lim Leangse, Hun Sen’s deputy cabinet chief, and Chan Sarun, minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, could not be reached for comment.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he could not speak about the issue and referred the Post to the Ministry of Land Management, whose officials also could not be reached.