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NGO: Data shows ‘wholesale sell-off’

Cambodia should urgently disclose all information about land ownership and rethink its “wholesale sell-off” of the country’s natural resources, a local rights group said yesterday.

"The call to release information about Cambodia’s land sector, including a declaration of revenues, came as Licadho released an analysis of concessions which showed that the amount of land granted to private companies since a state-wide ban on new concessions came in to force in 2012 had actually increased."

The data, which exclude land allocated for mining exploration, shows that 2.14 million hectares have been leased to private firms since the government announced its forest “conversion” policy in the early 2000s and began to issue economic land concessions (ELCs).

About 43 per cent of the ELCs are Cambodian-owned, more than a third of which comprise a single concession in Pursat province owned by Pheapimex Group, which is directed by Yeay Phu, the wife of ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin. The more than 333,000-hectare concession is far larger than the Tonle Sap lake and more than 33 times the legally allowed limit.

Vietnamese and Chinese companies control a third of the land, according to Licadho’s data, with Malaysian, Thai, Korean and Singaporean companies combined holding about 17 per cent.

“One important point to stress is that the data we released today is undoubtedly incomplete and misses some ELCs that have not been made public due to a lack of systematic and complete disclosure on the part of the government,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director.

“For example, in December 2014, the Ministry of Environment merely stated that 113 companies had been given concessions within their protected areas. Licadho could only locate 73. We therefore believe that today’s publication cannot and should not be a substitute for the government’s own data, and we call for the relevant ministries to be fully transparent about land dealings.”

Companies from Vietnam and China are the two biggest “players” in the sector, Pilorge said, a finding that validates media reporting on land conflicts in recent years that have been fuelled by large-scale concessions, such as the Union Development Group’s multibillion-dollar development in Koh Kong province.

“In many instances, the granting of ELCs has resulted in the irreversible loss of primary forests, with considerably negative impact on communities. ELCs have also created access-to-water issues, a critical resource which is already being negatively affected by climate change,” she added.

Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament who heads the National Assembly’s finance commission, said that by his estimates, about 70 per cent of the concessions were sought either to resell without making an investment or to strip the natural resources from the sites.

“They make so much money by cutting down all these trees. They look for foreign investors so they can cut the trees down and make all this money without benefiting the budget whatsoever,” he said, adding that analysis of previous national budgets had shown that as little as $7 in tax was collected from ELCs per hectare.

Chhay added that he would consider calling ministers responsible for ELC allocation and forestry to answer questions in parliament if the government failed to act.

“It’s crucial the government seriously looks into this. As a commission chairman, I want to look at the way that the revenue that comes from the land changes hands between one company and another.

I can also invite ministers to answer before the parliament. This is the wholesale destruction of our resources.”

Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Agriculture Ministry, said that the ministry would issue complete data after it had finished an audit of ELCs it began in 2012 after Hun Sen ordered a moratorium on new concessions.

“The ministry will issue its report when our task is complete. But for now, we are still working on it, so we cannot publish it. If we revealed [our findings] and they were wrong, we would be accused of lying to the people,” he said.

The government’s audit of ELCs has led to several being resized or cancelled altogether, notably the 100,000-hectare Green Sea Agriculture concession in Stung Treng province, owned by tycoon Mong Reththy, which was downsized to 9,800 hectares in January, according to a government decree.

Despite the apparent drive to clamp down on abuses of the ELC system, experts say a watchful eye should be kept on the government’s manoeuvres.

“In the past, the government made U-turns when it comes to ELC cancellations. We’ll be paying close attention to the recent announcements to see whether the revocations will be permanent, or whether the decision will eventually be reversed in favor of the current company, or transferred to a new one,” Licadho’s Pilorge said.

“What we know is ELCs have fueled a wave of land conflicts throughout the country, and have destroyed livelihoods to be replaced by cheaply paid seasonal work,” she added.

For Prak Thouk, a representative of villagers in Koh Sdech commune who are at the centre of the land dispute with the Union Development Group, ELC-based development has brought nothing but hardship, violence and threats.

“They said it would reduce poverty, that citizens would have jobs. But it made us all poorer because of the threat of eviction. We cannot go out to earn money while we constantly worry that the company will demolish our homes.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that three-fifths of all arable land in Cambodia is under the control of economic land concessionaires.​ The definition of arable land is flexible and ever-changing, and as economic land concessions are not exclusively granted in areas included in the arable land figure, the comparison is inaccurate.


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Asok's picture

Through out Cambodian history from ancient era to modern time. Khmer people have experienced great glory, unimaginable tragedies and pains, enormous declines and revivals from the eras of Jayavarman II & VII, Colonialism, King Norodom Sihanouk, Pol Pot, and Samdech Techo Hun Sen. Buried city Mahendraparvata, great monuments of Angkor Wat, of Preah Vihear testament to our glorious past of great leaders, ingenious people, talented artists and scholars. Evidences of our decline can also be seen in the scattering of our people Khmer Surin in Thailand, Khmer Krom in Vietnam and from shrinking of our territory from 1,200,000 square kilometers during Khmer Empire to 181,000 square kilometers in present time. Cambodian decline results of self-serving princes, leaders, and corrupt officials, who signed away Khmer land and exploited the people for personal power and wealth. Cambodian also suffered great tragedies and pains oppression under colonialism and recent painful memories of Tuol Sleng torture center and mass burial grave in Kompong Speu of genocidal atrocities committed under Pol Pot. Khmer people are resilient quick to revival from Jayavarman VII liberated Angkor Wat from foreign invader, to King Norodom Sihanouk gain independence from French colonialism oppression, to Samdech Techo Hun Sen and many patriots who liberated Khmer suffering people under Pol Pot regime. Cambodia is now at a turning point. Samdech Hun Sen can lead Khmer people to a destiny of greatness again or to begin a period of decline. Will he be remembered as of great kings and hero of past time like Jayavarman VII and King Norodom or will he be remembered in future time of his great great great grandchildrens as man who contributed to Cambodia decline like those self-serving princes and corrupted officials in past era that no one remember their name, wealth or power. Please, Samdech Hun Sen rescinded, reverse, and stop these Economics Land Concession policy which is the most destructive and unjust policy for Khmer people and Khmer Nation and for future unborn generations to come. Will you be remembered as a leader who liberated Khmer people from genocidal Pol Pot regime? Will you be remembered as a leader who rebuild a nation from a zero point? A man who turn stone robbles into tall skyscraper, dilapidated buildings and empty plot to comfortable residential houses and mansions . A man who turn scab metal and burning tank to automobiles and motorcycles for most Cambodian. A man who build transnational highways and paved residential streets when once was none. All these accomplishments are done in a period of 30 years. However, withh ELCs current policy of signing 2.14 million hectares( 60% of Cambodian arable land_) away for 99 years to a small group of corrupted officials and foreigners in order exploit Cambodian people and resources. You will be remembered as a man who contributed to Cambodian decline, not to it revival. You will be remembered as a leader signed 60% of Cambodian arable away to small group of corrupted official and foreigners to maintain personal power and wealth. Please, be like that of great leaders of past like Jayavarman VII and Norodom Sihanouk so that thousand years later people still remembered you for your for accomplishments. The decision is your Samdech Hun Sen to be one of Cambodia great hero and leader or to be forgotten or to be remembered as a man who signed aways 60% of Cambodia arable land which would make you the most revile and unfortunate Khmer of our time.

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