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Latest ELC plan draws scepticism

A local rights group member photographs the aftermath of a fire that was started to clear the forest for a rubber plantation in Kratie province’s Snuol district.
A local rights group member photographs the aftermath of a fire that was started to clear the forest for a rubber plantation in an economic land concession in Kratie province’s Snuol district in March. HENG CHIVOAN

Latest ELC plan draws scepticism

The government’s latest five-year strategy calls for a complete halt to economic land concessions (ELCs) and an inquiry into those still in the pipeline.

But the plan has drawn scepticism from conservationists and rights groups, who pointed out that loopholes have been liberally applied after the issuance of similar moratoriums in the past.

In the directive, issued on Wednesday as part of the five-year plan governing the next mandate, the government vows to strengthen how ELCs are awarded and regulated in order to “eliminate of all kinds of illegal rampant land grabs, prevent the collection of land without use … [and] resolve land disputes with justice and transparency”.

Similarly, it promises to improve crackdowns on forest crimes and put a renewed focus on the protection of forestry resources.

But many said yesterday that they doubted that the announcement – though promising on paper – would entail any true reform.

“I absolutely don’t believe it, because previously, [Prime MInister Hun Sen] promised to cut his head off if he couldn’t prevent forestry destruction. But, today, he still has his head and continues to offer economic land concessions that affect people throughout the country,” said Kuch Veng, a community activist from Pursat who was sentenced in 2012 to more than three months in prison after staging a series of strikes against powerful developer Pheapimex.

In May 2012, Hun Sen issued a complete moratorium on ELCs, saying the human cost had become far too high. But the directive allowed those already approved but not yet begun to move forward – even while refusing to say how many were in the pipeline.

The failures of that ban, said Licadho director Naly Pilorge, gave little hope for the newest directive.

“It will take more than words to be optimistic on the actual chances of seeing promise becoming reality for thousands of affected families,” she said.

Last year, more than 380,000 hectares of land was granted as ELCs or reclassified from state public to private land (a frequent first step toward an ELC grant). The vast majority of it – 71.5 per cent – was pulled from forests and wildlife sanctuaries that are meant to be protected under the law.

Conservationist Marcus Hardtke pointed to the willingness of government officials to flout the laws when it came to the granting of concessions as a reason for suspicion over the latest ban.

“Most of these concessions are already illegal under Cambodian law.… There is basically a giant timber and land grab going on. If the government wants to be serious at all, there needs to be a complete moratorium on these existing concessions. Short of that, we will not see any improvements,” he said.

While cutting down on ELCs, the government strategy, meanwhile, talks about upping the number of social land concessions.

Ostensibly aimed at providing land to the nation’s poorest, they, too, have proven easily abused in recent years. In a report issued by Adhoc earlier this year, researchers found that 13 of 38 SLCs granted in the past year had led to conflicts.

Barring a thorough review of existing concessions, Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth said, it was unlikely new bans would improve the situation.

“The government must review the companies receiving ELCs and explain how action will be taken when they deviate from the contract,” he said.

Over the past years, however, few – if any – have been punished for incursions and land grabbing, even as lawsuits among villagers who fight back stack up.

With little enforcement of existing laws, there could be scant hope that any directive would be followed, pointed out opposition party whip Son Chhay.

“If they want to prevent illegal ELCs they need a mechanism that arrests bad officials and punishes them [for continuing to grant them],” he said. “Giving ELCs for 99 years never gives any benefits; it just destroys the nation.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF

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