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Property rights threatened, NGOs claim

A draft agricultural land law threatens to eliminate property rights and effectively remove all limitations on the size of economic land concessions, a coalition of civil society groups said in a statement released.

The draft of The Law on the Management and Use of Agricultural Land, which was formulated with the help of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, also contains criminal sanctions that impose jail terms of up to one year.

The FAO has said that controversial agricultural land leases that had no apparent limitations in size had been removed from a new draft formulated in April, but yesterday declined to provide an updated copy of the law, which the government has also so far declined to circulate.

But the continued existence of Agricultural Development Areas in the draft law would allow the government to force farmers to switch the crops they are growing if an undefined majority of landholders in the area agree to the plan, said Licahdo director Naly Pilorge.

“This is another law that could potentially allow the government to arbitrarily award land without consulting the affected people,” she said, adding that the ADAs were effectively a form of forced collectivisation.

“What is really scary is that this law has penal sanctions, and these laws should never have penal sanctions.”

According to the old draft, the criminal penalties can be applied to anyone who breaches a subsequent related sub-decree or does not follow a directive of the General Directorate of Agriculture.

Pilorge said that in some circumstances, this meant farmers could be thrown in jail just for growing the crops they saw fit, and called on the FAO or the government to release the draft law so that those potentially affected can have input.

FAO representative Nina Brandstrup said yesterday that the law is the property of the GDA and the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, and that it was up to these bodies to decide if and when they publicise it.

In an emailed response to the Post, the FAO said it has previously defended the inclusion of criminal penalties in the law as standard legislation and said the forced implementation of ADAs if a majority of land holders agrees follows normal democratic practice.

“A careful reading on this chapter and the commentary on it makes it absolutely plain that it is designed to bring into being a participative cooperative approach to improving agricultural land use between the GDA and the small-scale farmers within an ADA,” the response reads.

The FAO also rejected the notion that ADAs would force farmers to grow specific crops – insisting there was leeway in the agreement to allow them to “grow what they want on at least a portion of their land”.

“Any law, no matter how carefully drafted, which confers powers on officials in connection with land, can be abused by a government for the benefit of the elites and to the disadvantage of the ordinary people,” FAO wrote.

“A law such as the draft ALL [Agricultural Land Law] will provide support for those officials trying to do a good job and make it a little harder for those officials and politicians wanting to abuse their powers to do so. No law can do more than that.”

Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said yesterday that the draft law was still not finished and that civil society would be given an opportunity to have input in its development.

“Don’t be worried. We will invite all NGOs and government officials who are involved in discussions about that draft law. After we get their recommendations, we will change [it] and then we will have another discussion,” he said.

The law is required by 2014 for a US$90 million Climate Resilient Rice Commercialisation Sector Development Program being majority financed by the Asian Development Bank, which plans to contribute $55 million.

A November 2011 concept paper for the projects outlines a target of increasing milled rice exports from 200,000 tonnes in 2010 to 1 million tonnes in 2015 by streamlining and better coordinating cultivation.

ADB was unable to respond by deadline yesterday.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com

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