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Scepticism over social land grants

People from six villages in Pursat province’s Kbal Trach commune protest outside Pheapimex Group
People from six villages in Pursat province’s Kbal Trach commune protest outside Pheapimex Group’s Krakor district office in 2012 over a land dispute. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Scepticism over social land grants

Nearly a million hectares of land has been granted to ordinary Cambodian citizens through social land concessions (SLC) since May 2012, the government has claimed, though civil society groups have cast doubt on that high figure and questioned how many landless or evicted poor have really benefited from the scheme as intended.

The amount of land allegedly given away to families in a less than two-year period is not far off the total 1.23 million hectares of land granted in economic land concessions (ELC) to private firms since 1993, per recent Ministry of Agriculture figures.

According to a statement released by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction in January and obtained by the Post yesterday, the government has given more than 930,000 hectares of land to villagers through SLCs since Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a moratorium on new ELCs in May 2012.

Approximately a third of that land has come from existing ELCs.

“The ministry has the great honour of informing the public that the government has reclassified and cut a total of more than 930,000 hectares of land to offer to the people,” the statement reads.

“Nearly 280,000 hectares has been cut out of 116 economic land concessions, more than 200,000 hectares of land has been cut out of 18 logging concessions and more than 450,000 hectares of land has been cut out of state land and forest land.”

As part of his ban on new ELCs, known as Directive 1, Hun Sen ordered authorities, in association with an army of youth volunteers, to measure and issue land titles to all villagers engaged in land disputes with concessionaires.

Social land concessions – which are meant to be distributed to poor and landless people, the disabled, the displaced, army veterans and victims of natural disasters for residential and farming purposes – were expected to play a key part in this effort to resolve ongoing disputes.

But activists, land rights groups and aggrieved villagers have argued that through SLCs, the government has instead caused new disputes, by giving away land that people already live on, and contributed to deforestation, by reclassifying state or protected forest in order for it to be given away.

Vann Sophath, land reform project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, cited examples in Mondulkiri, Pursat and Battambang provinces where SLCs had been granted on land already occupied by villagers.

“In Bou Sra commune, Mondulkiri, the former provincial governor granted a land concession to a group of people, claiming this group was poor and needed a land concession. But this land affected the indigenous people there, who then had a conflict with the people who received the social land concession [on their traditional land].”

He added that while reclassifying state or forest land and giving it to villagers “can be helpful”, there was a lack of transparency, meaning that land often ends up in the hands of commercial interests.

“The focus [of directive 1] was supposed to be on disputed land [between villagers and companies], but this has been implemented only on land where no conflicts exist, so the disputes remain.”

Recent CCHR data, while far from conclusive according to the organisation, found that 420 SLCs were granted in 2013 and 83 in 2012, though it did not report how many hectares this involved.

According to rights group Adhoc, 38 SLCs were granted in 2012, amounting to 100,790 hectares, with 13 resulting in conflict.

A social land concession can reach a maximum size of five hectares per family, meaning the new data suggests that, at minimum, 186,000 families have been granted SLC land since 2012, assuming they were the only beneficiaries.

“I’m not surprised [by the new data], but I don’t believe, and I don’t buy the numbers,” Ou Virak, chair of CCHR’s board of directors, said yesterday.

“Many private owners are actually legalising their forest land grabs through SLCs … valuable state land could also be offloaded on these schemes where officials pocket the money.… This whole thing, there is nothing true about anything in these schemes. Whatever they call it, it’s just land grabs.”

But Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a spokesman at the Ministry of Land Management, insisted that SLCs were only granted to the poor, the landless, veterans and handicapped people.

“People have to have a certified letter that they are really poor so they can get the land,” he said, before declining to comment further.

Kuch Veng, who represents hundreds of villagers locked in a long-term land dispute with Pheaphimex Group in Pursat province’s Krokor district, said that social land concessions offered to his community have never materialised.

“The land is not given to the real landless. But it is given to people from other areas far away. The authorities conspire with the volunteer students to sell the land to business people. Some of our land has been measured, but we only got the papers, not the land,” he said.

Chan Saveth, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, also blamed the execution of the seemingly benevolent policy for failing to resolve disputes.

“Because SLCs are given through volunteers, it’s just an opportunity for the rich to have more and more land through bribes. But the landless and those locked in disputes are still there.”

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