Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, the Kingdom’s top authority in charge of resolving land disputes, slammed the Ministry of Agriculture over “shameful” irregularities in granting economic land concessions at the Environment Ministry’s annual meeting yesterday.
During yesterday’s meeting, Chhin accused the Ministry of Agriculture of granting land concessions in protected areas, displacing villagers and carelessly handing out huge swaths of land to corporations.
He said that while both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment can grant economic land concessions for companies to invest, the Environment Ministry does it better and more transparently.
“We have to talk honestly here,” Chhin said.
“The granting of economic land concession is, by policy, made only on barren forest land where the forest does not grow well. This is not the reality; I think that all of you have known, but you do not dare to speak.”
The government’s ELC policy has affected tens of thousands of Cambodians, resulting in countless disputes, many of which have dragged on for years. It has also been blamed for deforestation on a massive scale, including in ostensibly protected forests.
Chhin yesterday claimed some agriculture officials simply marked out enormous concessions without inspecting the actual land to see if it was protected. On one occasion, the ministry actually granted a concession on land where an agriculture office was located, he added.
“The Forestry Administration officers sometimes just used GPS to grant land to this company or that company. Some companies were granted up to 350,000 hectares that included one department of agriculture where they were sitting to work,” he said.
“I knew when I inspected it, but I did not talk about it all because it is very shameful.”
As an example of another apparent irregularity, Chhin told the audience of an incident where he tried to grant 900 land titles to displaced villagers in an unnamed province. According to him, the agriculture officers in charge of the relocation then said only 600 people came to claim their land concession. That number eventually dropped to 300.
Chhin suggested that these land grants were being illegally given to corporations. “Who are the people who come to get these land titles?” he asked.
Chhin said the agriculture officials were not incompetent, but simply have not “put all their efforts” into following the policy.
“If we say that they have no capacity to work, it is not correct, because they are well-educated,” he said. He also suggested that some officials may prefer to work in the Environment Ministry instead.
Ministry of Agriculture spokesman Lor Raksmey could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the rights group Licadho, agreed with Chhin’s assessment.
“These malpractices have caused endless problems,” he said, noting, however, that government officials were never tried in court over alleged malfeasance, only reshuffled from their positions, often after criticism from the prime minister.
An annual report on the Ministry of Environment’s work in 2016 was also released at yesterday’s meeting. The report noted that the ministry created 41 new protected areas totalling almost 6 million hectares.