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Boeung Kak lake
A Boeung Kak lake activist holds a letter addressing their concerns at the US Embassy in September after it was revealed the World Bank was considering investing $25 million in the next phase of LASED. Eli Meixler

Program ‘failed to deliver’

As the World Bank mulls fresh funding for land concessions in Cambodia, a scathing new report has shed light on major failures with the first phase of the project.

The study released yesterday by local rights group Licadho, On Stony Ground: A Look Into Social Land Concessions, explores issues with the seven-year Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development (LASED) project funded by the bank and Germany’s foreign aid agency, GIZ.

Despite being hailed as a success by both the World Bank and GIZ, the project – which was meant to prove that social land concessions (SLCs) could contribute to reducing poverty by transferring land to landless families for residential and farming purposes – has failed to deliver on many of its goals, according to Licadho.

The Post revealed in September that the bank, in a move that would mark the end of a four-year lending freeze, was considering granting $25 million in fresh loans to bring LASED into its second phase, LASED II. This would see the additional funding pumped into many of the same SLCs, and another added in Kampong Thom province.

The report, however, argues that the first phase of the project is “far from a replicable model, and nowhere near a success story by any standards”.

While the $12.7 million LASED project achieved its goal of providing land to 3,000 families, Licadho estimates that less than half of those granted residential plots are actually occupying them. Much of the land allocated for farming has proved unsuitable and garnered “no significant improvement in terms of food security”, while many people have yet to receive land titles, it says.

Licadho’s research also showed that “half of the SLC sites were not yet functional and will need substantial financial and technical support to be minimally sustainable”.

Thirty-nine-year-old Pen To, a farmer from Kampong Thom’s Tipor commune who was granted land under the project in 2011, said his life “is better” because of LASED.

He is looking forward to receiving a formal land title next year, and said he “appreciate[s] this project, because before, I had no land for living or farming on, but right now I have 2.5 hectares”.

However, life for many of To’s neighbours has not improved.

“Right now, about 30 per cent [of people in his village] have better living conditions and 70 per cent still remain in poverty,” he said.

According to To, a number of his neighbours found the land they were granted unsuitable for growing crops, so migrated to seek work elsewhere.

“I am concerned about them; will they receive land titles or not?” he asked, referring to the law’s stipulation that a family must occupy a plot on a SLC for five consecutive years before being eligible for a land title.

Licadho says that such failures can be attributed largely to “a lack of political will from relevant Cambodian authorities to grant sufficient and adequate land for the SLCs in a timely manner”.

The World Bank and GIZ did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Sam Inn, former deputy director of Life with Dignity, an NGO charged with helping to implement LASED in Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Speu provinces, said the project could be “considered a success” in those areas. But, he acknowledged, there was “a lack of sufficient funding to do land clearance”, meaning that large areas could not be used.

Meanwhile, Sarun Bopha, a spokesman with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, dismissed the findings altogether.

“If the project is a failure, maybe the World Bank wouldn’t be planning to donate $25 million more to support this project,” he said. But, he added, the ministry would send “experts” to the SLCs to further examine their success, and any problems that did exist would be “resolved step by step”.

The World Bank had planned a consultation process with local villagers and other stakeholders ahead of the possible approval by its board of directors of the LASED II project, which was initially slated to be considered in March.

But most of the consultations have yet to take place, and are not expected to be completed until the end of July, according to the bank’s website.

Licadho said that before more money is pumped into SLC projects, “hard conclusions must be drawn about LASED’s failed model, and the government’s inimical approach to social land concessions must be challenged”.

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