The UN Special Representative for Human Rights has said Prime Minister Hun Sen's decision to resume economic land concession contracts is about poverty promotion, not poverty reduction.
"All I have seen is people dispossessed, thrown off their land and denied access to the natural resources upon which they depend," said Peter Leuprecht, special representative to the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia.
"The [economic land] concessions have failed to increase state revenue and to create any significant local employment," he said by e-mail to the Post.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced March 14 that he could no longer honor his October 2004 promise to postpone concession contracts. Speaking at a National Land Forum, he said investors were growing impatient, and he could no longer wait for the necessary sub-decree to pass.
"We are in a situation where some push for investment, while others close the door. As the Khmer saying goes 'too many people baking the cake, overcook it'," said Hun Sen in a speech to the Private Sector Forum. "Six months have passed and still no sub-decree. So if there is concrete investment, we start today."
The pending sub-decree will reduce all concessions to the legal size of 10,000 hectares, as well as establish procedures for granting concessions.
The freeze on land concession contracts was also agreed to by the government and donor groups at the Consultative Group meeting held last December.
Hun Sen apologized for breaking the agreement with the donor community but said that Cambodia must be independent in making decisions.
"Donor countries which give recommendations are kind, but they don't know what the Khmers need," Hun Sen said.
About 2.7 million hectares are presently under land concession management - 14 percent of Cambodia's total land mass.
Land use for economic purposes include tree plantations of rubber, teak, oil palm, eucalyptus and large-scale production of cassava, rice, corn or soybeans.
The 2001 Land Law limits the size of an economic land concession to 10,000 hectares, but Hun Sen intends to increase this to attract bigger investors.
A number of current economic land concessionaires already manage areas far greater than the legal 10,000 hectares.
In an extreme case, the logging company Pheapimex operates eucalyptus plantations in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces totalling 315,028 hectares.
In Pursat, at least, the concession has stirred conflict.
During a protest of the company's activities last year, a grenade explosion injured six people.
In a written response by Hun Sen to King Norodom Sihamoni, the Prime Minister insisted Pheapimex's operations were improving people's livelihoods and suggested the grenade attack was a propaganda tool used by the opposition party.
"The continuous protests were not the result of the people's own will. They were conducted with the incitement of the opposition party and some NGOs," Hun Sen wrote.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) has called for the cancellation of the Pheapimex concession and said the company's actions were violating people's rights.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of CHRAC, said he appreciates the importance of foreign investment, as long as the rights of the people are not forgotten.
"The right to property is less important than the right to life," he said.