Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 2012 ban on the allocation of economic land concessions was supposed to halt the unpopular practice of turning over large swaths of property to developers. And going by the numbers last year, it worked.
But in the vacuum, according to local rights group Adhoc, the government handed out an unprecedented number of a different kind of concession.
The report found that 485 social land concessions, or SLCs, which are intended for the disadvantaged, were issued last year, covering a total area of more than 600,000 hectares, some six times the amount granted in 2012.
Some SLCs were carved out of private land leased to large companies, while others overlapped with protected areas and state-owned land.
The rush to reclassify and donate land peaked in the six months leading up to the general election in July, the report added, suggesting it “may have been more of a populist measure to win votes”, which “casts a shadow on the government’s efforts”.
Eighty-eight per cent of the 485 concessions issued last year, the report said, were granted in the run-up to the election, with the highest recorded number in the month just prior to the vote.
Thun Saray, Adhoc’s president, said yesterday that while the group welcomed the drive to issue SLCs as a way of preventing illegal encroachment on private land, the actual figures may differ significantly.
“We see many [SLCs] are in the figures, but it is just a number on paper. A great deal of land has not been implemented [for SLCs]. It is just marked as social land concessions, so the real figure is doubtful,” he said.
Adhoc also noted concern that the policy could “worsen the situation of vulnerable families and aggravate landlessness, as corruption, mismanagement and serious abuses have been reported in relation to SLCs”.
Despite the huge increase in SLCs, Adhoc recorded a significant “decrease in the number of conflicts related to them: two in 2013 compared with 13 disputes” in 2012, the report said.
The figures contrast slightly with a study the Cambodian Center for Human Rights conducted into land conflicts between 2011 and 2013, which found 41 new disputes in
The concerns include a lack of community consultations, where in many cases poor planning and analysis of suitable land have led to SLCs being awarded on land that is already claimed by other people or in the process of being registered as indigenous collective land.
In April 2013, Muslim Cham migrants moved to an SLC in Mondulkiri’s Pech Chreada district, where Phnong villagers have lived for many years.
The Phnong allege that since the Cham arrived, the group has cleared up to 500 hectares of indigenous land and sold the luxury timber to local police. The two communities have been at odds ever since.
“Giving out a lot of land is good, but it should not just be on paper, or affecting other people’s land. Please do not use people protesting as hostages and put them in jail,” Saray said.
As only 40 per cent of Cambodia’s arable land remains out of the hands of private concessionaires, the limited available land has meant that “large portions of forest-covered areas, and wildlife sanctuaries – already heavily encroached by ELCs and illegal logging activities” – have been reclassified
The push to issue SLCs comes after years of pressure led Prime Minister Hun Sen in May 2012 to issue a directive temporarily suspending the issuance of new ELCs, which coincided with the launch of a land-titling scheme that officials claim has allocated more than 500,000 land titles.
“What is negative is that the government does not pay attention to land disputes. The mechanism for settlement is still slow for chronic land disputes,” Saray said.
Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, declined to comment.
Lo Navuth, director-general of the ministry’s Cadastral Department, could not be reached.
According to government figures, under the May 2012 directive, the authorities have reclassified about 1 million hectares of land nationwide, including 340,000 hectares cut from 128 ELCs.
Nearly 230,000 hectares have been cleaved from 16 forestry concessions and 500,000 hectares have been reclassified from state and forest land.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE