Cambodia should urgently disclose all information about land ownership and rethink its “wholesale sell-off” of the country’s natural resources, a local rights group said yesterday.
"The call to release information about Cambodia’s land sector, including a declaration of revenues, came as Licadho released an analysis of concessions which showed that the amount of land granted to private companies since a state-wide ban on new concessions came in to force in 2012 had actually increased."
The data, which exclude land allocated for mining exploration, shows that 2.14 million hectares have been leased to private firms since the government announced its forest “conversion” policy in the early 2000s and began to issue economic land concessions (ELCs).
About 43 per cent of the ELCs are Cambodian-owned, more than a third of which comprise a single concession in Pursat province owned by Pheapimex Group, which is directed by Yeay Phu, the wife of ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin. The more than 333,000-hectare concession is far larger than the Tonle Sap lake and more than 33 times the legally allowed limit.
Vietnamese and Chinese companies control a third of the land, according to Licadho’s data, with Malaysian, Thai, Korean and Singaporean companies combined holding about 17 per cent.
“One important point to stress is that the data we released today is undoubtedly incomplete and misses some ELCs that have not been made public due to a lack of systematic and complete disclosure on the part of the government,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director.
“For example, in December 2014, the Ministry of Environment merely stated that 113 companies had been given concessions within their protected areas. Licadho could only locate 73. We therefore believe that today’s publication cannot and should not be a substitute for the government’s own data, and we call for the relevant ministries to be fully transparent about land dealings.”
Companies from Vietnam and China are the two biggest “players” in the sector, Pilorge said, a finding that validates media reporting on land conflicts in recent years that have been fuelled by large-scale concessions, such as the Union Development Group’s multibillion-dollar development in Koh Kong province.
“In many instances, the granting of ELCs has resulted in the irreversible loss of primary forests, with considerably negative impact on communities. ELCs have also created access-to-water issues, a critical resource which is already being negatively affected by climate change,” she added.
Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament who heads the National Assembly’s finance commission, said that by his estimates, about 70 per cent of the concessions were sought either to resell without making an investment or to strip the natural resources from the sites.
“They make so much money by cutting down all these trees. They look for foreign investors so they can cut the trees down and make all this money without benefiting the budget whatsoever,” he said, adding that analysis of previous national budgets had shown that as little as $7 in tax was collected from ELCs per hectare.
Chhay added that he would consider calling ministers responsible for ELC allocation and forestry to answer questions in parliament if the government failed to act.
“It’s crucial the government seriously looks into this. As a commission chairman, I want to look at the way that the revenue that comes from the land changes hands between one company and another.
I can also invite ministers to answer before the parliament. This is the wholesale destruction of our resources.”
Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Agriculture Ministry, said that the ministry would issue complete data after it had finished an audit of ELCs it began in 2012 after Hun Sen ordered a moratorium on new concessions.
“The ministry will issue its report when our task is complete. But for now, we are still working on it, so we cannot publish it. If we revealed [our findings] and they were wrong, we would be accused of lying to the people,” he said.
The government’s audit of ELCs has led to several being resized or cancelled altogether, notably the 100,000-hectare Green Sea Agriculture concession in Stung Treng province, owned by tycoon Mong Reththy, which was downsized to 9,800 hectares in January, according to a government decree.
Despite the apparent drive to clamp down on abuses of the ELC system, experts say a watchful eye should be kept on the government’s manoeuvres.
“In the past, the government made U-turns when it comes to ELC cancellations. We’ll be paying close attention to the recent announcements to see whether the revocations will be permanent, or whether the decision will eventually be reversed in favor of the current company, or transferred to a new one,” Licadho’s Pilorge said.
“What we know is ELCs have fueled a wave of land conflicts throughout the country, and have destroyed livelihoods to be replaced by cheaply paid seasonal work,” she added.
For Prak Thouk, a representative of villagers in Koh Sdech commune who are at the centre of the land dispute with the Union Development Group, ELC-based development has brought nothing but hardship, violence and threats.
“They said it would reduce poverty, that citizens would have jobs. But it made us all poorer because of the threat of eviction. We cannot go out to earn money while we constantly worry that the company will demolish our homes.”