Dozens of companies that have not met their commitments to invest in developing land granted to them in concessions have had their leases revoked since a moratorium on new contracts was passed in 2012, the government said yesterday.
More than 600,000 hectares of land leased to 71 private companies has been reclaimed and put under the jurisdiction of relevant government agencies, according to Eang Sophalleth, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Sixty-three companies’ concessions, covering 513,000 hectares, had their licences revoked under the previous government since Prime Minister Hun Sen instituted a ban on new concessions and an audit of current ones in May 2012, Sophalleth said.
“The ministry is reviewing the concessionaires nationwide with a view to modifying or seizing the land and giving the land to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the provincial authorities to control,” he said.
Since the July 2013 elections, the current government has seized the land of eight companies covering 143,340 hectares.
Critics of the policy have suggested that stripping the concessionaires of their holdings might not go far enough, as Cambodia has a history of firms buying up land under the guise of grand agricultural investments, only to strip the forest for its timber.
“Whenever the companies are passive and do wrong by not complying with the policies in place, we will take the land back,” Sophalleth said. “When the concessionaires affect people, in principle, the government has to take the land to prevent further impacts.”
Under the current government, he went on, Stung Treng province was selected to be the focus of the audit, and seven of the eight economic land concessions voided since 2013.
A total of 115 ELCs are currently under review, he added, covering a land area of 1.2 million hectares.
Since the May 2012 moratorium, eight companies have signed contracts for new ELCs, which the government claims were already in the pipeline prior to the ban, while five others were not approved.
Vietnamese and Chinese companies hold the majority of land concessions in Cambodia, with 82 concessions in 17 provinces, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The 2012 ban on new concessions ordered by Hun Sen came off the back of rising discontent over a slew of disputes with villagers and ELC companies.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator at local rights group Licadho, said the government should take stronger measures to punish companies that have added little to Cambodia’s development while stripping the land of natural resources.
“The government should take further steps against the companies after it seized the land, because they have annihilated our natural resources and affected livelihoods,” he said.
A 2013 report by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights indicated that, since 2000, more than 700,000 people have been negatively affected by ELCs nationwide, with almost a fifth of Cambodia’s land area handed over to private companies.