Prime Minister Hun Sen has issued an immediate and indefinite moratorium on the granting of new economic land concessions and called for a review of all existing concessions, a regulation signed by the premier yesterday states.
Dated to an April 27 Council of Ministers’ meeting, the new regulation specifically threatens the seizure of concessions that are left undeveloped along with a range of other transgressions.
“For the companies that have already received permission in principle from the royal government, but have not … developed on the land, have been doing commercial logging, invaded additional land, sold off parts of their concession land, conducted illegal exploitation [for minerals], or grabbed additional land off people and communities, the Royal Government will seize back all those economic land concessions,” the regulation states.
The regulation also stipulates that a private company must abide by the so-called tiger formula of development, meaning if a firm is granted a concession that includes land within a community, it cannot develop that land.
Earlier this year, the Post reported that the premier made broad threats to remove concessions from companies that could not resolve ongoing land disputes, but no action was taken against any firms, despite a continuation of the protests and violence.
While the regulation marks the government’s first legal action to address the endemic turmoil caused by the current method of granting and monitoring ELCs, details on its implementation were thin yesterday.
It was unclear when, or what, would cause the moratorium to be lifted or how the review of existing land concessions would be conducted.
Council of Ministers’ spokesman Ek Tha said he had not yet read the regulation, but that the technical work would depend on the relevant ministries.
“Whatever my prime minister says, we respect and we execute. This is a must,” Ek Tha said. “It shows the government’s strong commitment to accountability and transparency and sustainable economic development.”
However, civil society representatives who have long called for a moratorium on ELCs were sceptical, saying the move had more to do with the government’s commitment to staying in power than accountability.
The premier’s announcement comes after the highly publicised murder of forestry activist Chut Wutty and several violent land evictions and disputes this year.
It also comes just ahead of upcoming commune and national elections and a one-week fact finding mission in the Kingdom by UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi, who is focusing on economic and other land concessions.
Subedi told the Post yesterday that he very much welcomed the regulation, “especially coming at a time when I am focusing on these issues”.
“I understand that Cambodia as a developing country needs to have ELCs to address poverty and accelerate the process of equitable economic development,” Subedi said by email. “But they should be granted and managed within a sound legal and policy framework, including respect for people’s rights.
“Cambodia has many good laws and regulations, but many of them are not properly implemented,” he said, adding he would continue to monitor the situation of those affected by ELCs in the Kingdom.
Mathieu Pellerin, consultant for rights group Licadho, welcomed the long-called-for moratorium, but said it was “the first step in a very, very long process”.
“With the moratorium must come the review,” Pellerin told the Post yesterday. “I think the government has the means and the resources, and if there is a real political will, it [the government] will conduct a meaningful review.
“But we are weeks away from a commune election – are we dealing with an honest initiative or a government telling people what they think they want to hear?” Pellerin said.
“We cannot overlook that everything is happening within the context of two big elections.”
Election monitor Comfrel’s executive director Koul Panha said the regulation was “undoubtedly” linked to the upcoming election and that similar promises were made at the last national elections in 2007 and 2008.
“There have already been lots of promises, this time they must produce policy, something specific, and a concrete policy to ban ELCs is exactly what is needed,” Koul Panha said. “This issue has been so highly publicised that the government had to do something in response.”
Pen Bonnar, Adhoc coordinator for Ratankkiri, one of the provinces most affected by ELCs, said he, and the people of Ratankkiri, would be very happy to hear no more ELCs would be granted there.
Nonetheless, he said the government’s biggest task will be to conduct a proper review of existing ELCs.
“Most, more than half, of the ELC holders in Ratanakkiri do not respect people’s rights, and the companies just plunder the forests,” Pen Bonnar said.
The UN’s Subedi visited Ratanakkiri, as well as Kratie and Stung Treng, as part of his fact-finding mission into land concessions.
Cambodian Economic Association president Chan Sophal said the moratorium would have no affect on the Cambodian economy because concessions are technically granted for free and therefore the government does not generate any substantial amount of money from a concession once it was granted.
“There might be a small processing fee paid by companies, but this is very small in comparison to their revenue, and it is not a formal fee paid to the government,” Chan Sophal said.
“It will be better for the Cambodian economy if there are no more grants – it will stop all the problems for the government with these matters,” Chan Sophal said.