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Kings of concessions

A man sits next to the charred remains of his house that was allegedly burned to the ground by Chinese company Union Development Group in Koh Kong's Botum Sakor District earlier this month.
A man sits next to the charred remains of his house that was allegedly burned to the ground by Chinese company Union Development Group in Koh Kong's Botum Sakor District earlier this month. Heng Chivoan

Kings of concessions

Vietnam and China lead the pack of foreign companies granted economic land concessions in Cambodia for agro-industrial development by a wide margin, new data released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show.

According to the ministry’s annual report, released last month, since 1993 the government has offered concessions to 121 companies in total, 82 of which are foreign.

Foreign concessionaires were granted 620,987 hectares of land according to the ministry, just over half of the total 1.2 million hectares – a figure widely contested by rights groups – that the government says it has granted. Of the 82 foreign companies, 34 are Vietnamese, with 253,623 hectares granted, and 25 are Chinese, with 203,960 hectares granted, the report says.

Following well behind are seven Korean companies, four Thai companies, three Malaysian companies, three Indian companies, two Singaporean companies and one company each from the United States, Russia, Australia and Israel.

Less than one-quarter of the land leased to foreign companies has been used for the agro-industrial development – often rubber and cassava plantations – for which the concessions were granted, according to the report.

Last year, the government terminated agreements with 11 companies granted 85,968 hectares of land after they were found to have failed to meet the development conditions of their leases, it adds.

But while the government recorded 1.2 million hectares of land granted in the form of ELCs since 1993, almost seven per cent of the country’s entire land mass, the figure is far less than that recorded by NGOs.

Rights group Licadho says 2.1 million hectares in total, or 11.6 per cent of land, has been leased to private companies, while the Cambodian Center for Human Rights says more than 3.1 million hectares, or 16.6 per cent, has been granted, adversely affecting some 700,000 Cambodians since 2000 due to forced eviction or resettlement.

“I think the number would not be less than two million hectares. That is a fact. I think the Ministry of Agriculture has not been honest regarding this data they have put out,” senior opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said.

“More than one million [hectares] is land that has just been destroyed by companies just interested in deforestation.… The benefit to the country is hardly anything.… No revenue is coming into the government budget [from these concessions].”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that while the government has learned that “any reform has its price”, including environmental and social impacts, ELCs have undoubtedly brought money into the government’s coffers through logging licences and taxes.

“They have to pay the Ministry of Finance [to get the concession], and they have to pay tax for a logging licence and to export it. The opposition doesn’t see that,” he said. “The forests are replaced by rubber plantations, so that is jobs and tax contributing to the national income … and if the companies don’t perform their responsibility, the government will [take] the [concession] back.”

ELCs are granted by the government after an inter-ministerial committee processes applications from companies, said Thorn Sarath, a director in the Agriculture Ministry’s administration department.
“The reason companies from Vietnam and China receive the most concessions is because they have applied the most.”

But Chan Soveth, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that the link between the top two foreign holders of ELCs and Cambodia’s closest diplomatic relationships is clear.

“Granting ELCs in provinces along the Vietnamese border has really affected natural resources, because no other country knows Cambodia and its natural resources better than Vietnam,” he said.

Vietnamese and Chinese concessions were concentrated in provinces rich in natural resources and mining opportunities such as Kampong Thom, Koh Kong, Kratie, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng, he added.

“Granting those ELCs not only affects our natural resources, but people living in those areas, ethnic minorities in particular, lose their traditions. We do not say no to the granting of ELCs, but their effects have to be carefully studied.”

In May 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a moratorium on new ELCs and ordered a review of existing ELCs to address problems of chronic land grabbing and illegal logging on land supposed to be used for agro-industrial development.

On September 25 last year, following the national election, the premier announced that the government would focus on granting social land concessions for landless citizens during the fifth mandate rather than granting ELCs to private companies.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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