Sacred burial grounds and community forests should be granted more protection under a new government proclamation issued this month, but rights groups and land-grab victims are wary that, without proper enforcement, it will amount to little in practice.
An interministerial proclamation, or prakas, signed by Minister of Agriculture Ouk Rabun and Minister of Environment Say Sam Ol on May 9 and obtained by the Post yesterday, aims to strengthen the management of economic land concessions (ELCs) to protect community areas, such as community forests and burial sites.
Each company must implement the “tiger skin formula” of guaranteeing that its ELC “does not affect the farming lands of villagers, community forest and protected forest”, the prakas says.
The tiger skin formula means that land inhabited by farmers must be cut out of the concession area.
“The clearing [of land] must guarantee the preservation of the protected areas,” including graveyards, jungle forest and “spirit places”, it says.
But rights groups and villagers were sceptical about how effective the prakas will be.
Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that the prakas has been issued “too late” and was more likely a public relations gambit.
“The ministries just released it so it would look good. They do not have any real intention to protect the forest,” he said.
According to Thy, companies have already cleared most of the protected forests and graveyards in the area and planted rubber trees in their place.
Sav Nork, 42, community leader of the Jarai ethnic group in O’Yadav district, said the authorities had taken no action when he lost land to an ELC.
“When we sued the company, the courts said we did not have enough evidence,” he said, adding that he does not understand why the government has chosen to issue the proclamation now.
Vann Sophath, land reform coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), was more positive.
While he had not yet seen the prakas, Sophath said that such measures would be an “important step by the government”. But, he said, implementation would be “absolutely critical”.
He also said that it was essential for affected communities to be consulted about how ELCs operated.
“In the past, ELCs which have been granted without adequately conducting public consultation and environmental and social impact assessments have led to large-scale human rights violations, including the displacement of communities and negative impact on livelihoods.”
NGO Forum director Tek Vannara agreed, calling it a sign of progress, but stressed implementation was key.
Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a moratorium on new ELCs in May 2012 after a slew of criticism over companies abusing their contracts.
But complaints have also been raised over abuses of a new social land concession program, which received a cautious welcome from land campaigners. Social land concessions have since been granted on land claimed by ethnic minority groups, bringing migrants into conflict with local communities.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY