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UN report slams Cambodia's land abuses

Blackened tree stumps smoulder on deforested land in the Prey Lang forest in March. Photograph: May Titthara/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's economic land concession (ELC) policies are hindering development far more than helping it and beginning to erode the country’s hard-won stability, Cambodia’s special rapporteur warned yesterday.

“As I have noted in relation to other sectors in Cambodia, the existence of the legal framework on paper is one thing, the implementation of the law is another,” rights envoy Surya Subedi told the UN Human Rights Council last night.

“I have been consistently informed that the formal framework relating to land concessions is not being applied properly in many, if not most, cases.”

Addressing the inter-governmental body in Geneva, Subedi also delivered a 130-page addendum to his annual report printed last month, which offers an unsparing look at ELCs.

In the report, released to the public yesterday, Subedi underscores how a solid set of laws intended to govern concessions is flouted and ignored to provide companies and the government with gains that are temporary at best.

The government declared a moratorium on ELCs in May, but dozens in the pipeline at the time of the announcement have continued to go through.

“Throughout my analysis, I struggled to fully comprehend the benefits of many land concessions that the government has granted. In general, it is not clear to what extent the people of Cambodia have actually benefited from land concessions,” Subedi writes.

“The overwhelming conclusion drawn from petitions, letters, studies, peaceful protests, violent demonstrations, legal complaints, land-dispute statistics and my own direct observations is that land concessions are only benefiting a minority.”

Backed by dozens of pages of maps and concessionaire details, the report draws special attention to two rampant misuses of the ELC laws: concessions granted in protected areas and those over the permissible 10,000 hectares.

Both are ostensibly illegal, but loopholes and government compliance have resulted in a surge of such concessions.

In the case of granting land in protected areas, a seemingly ad hoc system of reclassifying the land as a “sustainable use zone” has allowed concessions to proliferate in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

“There is concern that sub-decrees are being used opportunistically as a means for the government to designate land within protected areas and grant it to concession companies,” Subedi writes, pointing out that nearly 20 per cent of the country’s protected areas have been re-purposed for rubber plantations, agro-industrial complexes, exploratory mining and hydropower projects.

Meanwhile, concessionaires have been able to collect parcels of land far larger than the legal limit “by obtaining separate but contiguous concessions and using them for the same purpose”.

Officials at the Ministries of Environment, Agriculture, and Land Management could not be reached for comment.

Accusing the government of allowing concessionaires to “operate behind a veil of secrecy,” Subedi cautions that whatever benefits the government may reap from such allowances will probably be short-lived.

“Perhaps the greatest impact that the irregular granting and mismanagement of economic and other land concessions has on the country is to its stability,” he writes. “Businesses without proper legal and procedural safeguards run significant risks that could affect their reputations, legal status, and profits, and in turn could hamper Cambodia‘s economic growth.”

Speaking at the council last night, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN, Sun Suon, addressed few of Subedi’s points head-on, instead focusing on progress — highlighting the ELC moratorium as one such success.

Economic land concessions - highlighted in Subedi's recent report for having massive detrimental impacts on the general populace - have proliferated in recent years. This time lapse map by rights group Licadho shows the speed at which concessions have been granted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at



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