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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land rights in Cambodia a hot issue, says report

Land rights in Cambodia a hot issue, says report

A woman watches villagers harvesting cassava in Kratie province
A woman watches villagers harvesting cassava in Kratie province’s Chhlong district last month. The Casotim company, which is the beneficairy of a 15,000-hectare rubber concession in Chhlong district, is just one of many economic land concessionaires whose disputes with villagers sparked violence, in 2012. Will Baxter

In May, the premier issued an unparalleled directive, declaring a moratorium on economic land concessions he deemed too much trouble, with too high a human cost. A month later came the announcement of a sweeping land-titling scheme intended to provide tenure to millions. By July, thousands of highly trained student volunteers were being dispatched to the countryside to help speed the titling process.

Ostensibly, all of this was aimed at stemming a rampant tide of land grabbing and disputes.

But the results have been negligible, suggests a report released yesterday by rights group Adhoc.

“The land situation is becoming critical. Citizens and communities are more aware of their rights and increasingly demand justice and accountability. Yet land is scarce and the authorities fail to uphold citizens’ rights. If the current problems are not addressed as a matter of priority, social stability may be at stake,” warns the annual land issues report.   

Following a record year of concessions granted, 2012 saw a considerable slowing. Last year, 381,121 hectares were granted or reclassified compared with 751,882 hectares in 2011. But even as ELCs dip, disputes and problems persist.

“Violence and threats of violence are increasingly being used against community representatives as well as land and housing rights workers and activists,” notes the report, which recorded a 144 per cent increase in land rights-related arrests.

The mounting arrest record leads to a “chilling” effect, said senior Adhoc investigator Chan Soveth – who himself was subjected to a land-issue-related criminal charge that was dropped only last week.

“After they’re released, they don’t want to file a complaint against the illegal detention or against the threats by authorities,” said Soveth, adding that while arrests have sky-rocketed, charges have in fact dropped, suggesting a serious abuse of the pre-trial detention system.

Scant Protections

Increasingly drawn from wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, concessions threaten to devastate the last remaining protected areas. Of the 381,121 hectares of land granted last year, 71.5 per cent of it was pulled from protected areas, notes the report.

“Relatively fewer people seem to be affected [by ELCs this year],” pointed out Nicolas Agostini, a technical adviser at Adhoc focusing on land issues. “But I find it difficult to regard this as a victory, because the land is [now] coming from protected areas, which are disappearing fast.”

The granting of concessions in protected areas has created a knock-on effect, speeding along deforestation by incentivising illegal logging.

“One strategy that is frequently used by private companies is to clear forested land inside a protected area and then to get deforestation noted by the government, who re-classifies the land or cuts it off from the relevant protected area. Thus, instead of taking action to prevent further deterioration, the government endorses the acts of grabbers and rewards them,” notes the report.

Meanwhile, social land concessions have proliferated. In theory, SLCs are aimed at lessening poverty by providing land to the nation’s poorest. But in practice, the process by which they are granted is frequently rife with “corruption, mismanagement and nepotism”.

More than twice the number of hectares was granted as SLCs in 2012 as in 2011, and many of those 100,790 hectares have led to conflicts of their own. “Of 38 newly granted SLCs, 13 gave rise to conflicts,” notes the report.

“Today, there is concern that measures taken to implement the SLC policy could actually worsen the situation of vulnerable families, aggravating landlessness and fuelling land conflicts.”

A Land Management Ministry official expressed scepticism over such a conclusion.

“This is very funny,” responded Beng Hong Socheat Khemro. “The reason why the government initiated the SLCs is to help the landless and poor, to try and give land to those who do not have land or have inadequate land in the hopes that the issues created by landlessness will be minimised or cut down.

“It’s their right to comment [regarding corruption], but if you read through the sub-decree on SLCs... this is one of the most transparent processes,” he continued.

Asked about concession granting in protected areas, Socheat Khemro said that in his “personal observation, that had not been the case”, but referred further questions to the ministries of Environment and Agriculture, which are responsible for issuing concessions.

Director of national conservation and protection at the Ministry of Environment, Chay Sarith, said he was too busy to speak, while Thuk Kroeun Vutha, secretary of state at the same ministry said simply: “I don’t know,” before referring questions back to Sarith and hanging up. Multiple calls to officials at the Ministry of Agriculture over the past two days have gone unanswered.

Willing and able?

On the one hand, note rights workers, significant strides have been made under the new initiatives. Following the issuance of Directive 001, 71,220 titles had been delivered by the end of last year and 433,987 hectares measured.

“What the last year showed was that when there is political will, things can change,” said Adhoc’s Agostini. “The first step has been taken; now we call on the government to take the same steps for people in disputed areas, in informal settlements and for indigenous minorities.”

But as the granting of ELCs slows and, even, in some cases, are cut and awarded as titles to individuals, some question whether some of the initiatives are little more than hollow publicity campaigns.

In January, for instance, the government announced it had cut some 250,000 from 79 concessions, logging concessions, economic land concessions and wildlife sanctuary and national park land agreements and intended to return it as land to “poor people”.

Much of those concessions, however, were suspended more than a decade ago, rights group Licadho noted this week.

Logging concessions – comprising more than 30 of the 79 relevant sub-decrees, according to January 17’s Royal Book – “have been suspended since 2002 after pressure from the donors”, said director Naly Pilorge.

“For the government to claim it is ‘taking back’ land from the companies who operated these concessions that were suspended over a decade ago is disingenuous.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com,  May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com, Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com

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