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FAO should push for release of draft of law

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A man inspects dragon fruit trees on a plantation in rural Cambodia. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

We welcome the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) confirmation that the troubling chapter eliminating all limitations on large-scale agricultural land leases has been removed in an as-of-yet unreleased draft of the agricultural land law that is the subject of last week’s article titled “Property rights threatened, NGOs claim”.

We feel compelled to write, however, to respond to several misleading remarks by FAO’s Representative in Cambodia as reported in that article.

First, FAO suggests that the forced implementation of government initiated and led development plans should be considered normal democratic process.This is nothing short of shocking.

There is nothing either normal or democratic about creating a legal framework whereby an undefined majority, solely on the initiative of a government ministry, can dictate what their neighbours can grow on their own privately held property at risk of criminal penalties, and without any time limitations or opt-out provisions.

FAO next claims that the law makes it “absolutely plain” that it is “designed to bring into being a participative cooperative approach to improving agricultural land use”. But the law does not allow for the initiation of agricultural development areas by willing private landholders themselves – only by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF).

And there are no provisions limiting or defining the purpose or contents of such areas’ mandatory plans, nor are there any provisions in the draft law dealing with the termination or expiration of the forced zones. Private landholders do not even have the ability to resign or exclude themselves under the draft law.

There is simply nothing “participative” about forced cooperation.

As explained further in LICADHO’s briefing paper released on July 23, private landholders who fail to comply with and implement the development plans – or absolutely any other provision of the lengthy law or even with undefined MAFF directives – are criminally liable and could face imprisonment.

In the wake of an increasing number of arbitrary criminal proceedings brought to silence land advocates and community members facing forced evictions and other land rights abuses, such as the recent universally condemned proceedings against 15 individuals from Phnom Penh’s disputed Boueng Kak area, it is shameful that a UN representative would consider the promulgation of such sweepingly vague criminal liability to be “standard legislation”.

Finally, FAO suggests that the draft law would “make it a little harder for those officials and politicians wanting to abuse their powers to do so”. We respectfully request that FAO clarify where the draft law provides any such limitation.

The draft law’s broad criminal penalties are directed at private landholders, who are subject to multiple new restrictions. The draft law includes not just the forced development areas discussed above, but also vague soil conservation and sustainability requirements, provisions related to contract farming, and a new burdensome permitting process required prior to any changes to personal land use. The draft law also includes a variety of provisions that could allow for government officials to arbitrarily seize private land. The draft law includes no reference to consequences for abuse by government officials.

Finally, we note that the draft law runs afoul of FAO’s own recently released voluntary guidelines on land tenure. As noted by those guidelines: “States should protect legitimate tenure rights, and ensure that people are not arbitrarily evicted and that their legitimate tenure rights are not otherwise extinguished or infringed.” (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, released by FAO on March 9, 2012.)

There can be no doubt that a draft law that seeks to force private landholders to undertake specific agricultural practices infringes on their legitimate land rights.

We call on FAO to urge MAFF to release the most-recent draft of this law in a timely fashion, allowing relevant stakeholders – in particular farmers’ associations whose membership will be most impacted by this draft law – to comment.

Naly Pilorge,
Director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho)
Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com
The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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