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Disputed land to be returned to villagers

Disputed land to be returned to villagers

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Mong Reththy, a former adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaks to reporters during a tour of several of his company’s agro-industrial projects in Preah Sihanouk province in 2011. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

More than 8,000 hectares of land was cut from economic and forest land concessions owned by some of the country’s biggest tycoons and awarded to villagers last month, according to documents from the Council of Ministers.

Four sub-decrees signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen order that land from four high-profile disputed areas be divided among nearly 3,500 families in four provinces.

The land is from controversial concessions in Pursat, Stung Treng, Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk provinces — each of which has been involved in long-standing land disputes.

Nearly 2,000 families in Stung Treng’s Thala Barivat district were awarded 3,553 hectares from concessions granted to Pheapimex Fuchang.

The company, owned by Choeng Sopheap, the wife of ruling-party senator Lao Meng Khin, has repeatedly found itself at the centre of land disputes involving hundreds of thousands of hectares across several provinces.

In Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng district, 196 families have been given 1,090 hectares from a concession owned by Kain Co Ltd. In May, 2012, families wrote directly to the premier, seeking intervention in their dispute with the rubber company.

In Pursat’s Veal Veng district, 311 hectares of land inside the Phnom Samkus wildlife sanctuary, along with 2,977 hectares owned by MDS Import Export, was awarded to 835 families. The latter is carved from a 4,373 hectare economic land concession owned by MDS Import Export Co, Ltd, which has been locked in a long-standing land dispute with hundreds of families, who maintain the company has illegally grabbed their land.

And 305 families living in Preah Sihanouk were given 411 hectares in Prey Nop district that formerly belonged to businessman Mong Reththy.

The re-assignment follows months of land demarcation undertaken by cadastral officials working for provincial land management committees on behalf of Hun Sen’s large-scale land-titling initiative.

In May, amid mounting pressure, the premier issued a moratorium on economic land concessions and called for a reexamination of existing concessions.

A month later, he ordered provincial authorities across the country to demarcate land as part of a titling scheme intended to impact millions. (Though wide-reaching, the former initiative has come under fire, with observers noting that a loophole in the moratorium has given the go-ahead to an unknown number of ELCs already in the pipeline at the time of the ban.)

Mong Reththy, chairman of the eponymous Mong Reththy Group, said he supported the sub-decree, and noted that the land awarded was just a fraction of his concession, which totals more than 11,000 hectares.  

“The land cutting has a small impact on my company, but it doesn’t matter, because it benefits the residents who farm their lands, and I will continue to invest my land,” he said.

Lim Leang Se, deputy chief of Hun Sen’s cabinet, declined to comment on the sub-decrees signed by the premier, and referred questions to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

Ministry spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro could not be contacted yesterday.

Further details on the ELCs could not be obtained from the listing hosted on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website, as the page had been breeched by a pro-Taliban hacker.

Senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, Chan Soveth, said the carving of these concessions was a step in the right direction, but urged that more focus be paid to areas in dispute, noting that much of the land demarcation thus far has addressed only non-disputed territory.

“The action of the government can reduce land disputes, but [in order to do so], the government should focus on land disputes,” said Soveth.

To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]

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