Activists Doubt Cambodia Pledge to Stop Land Concessions

Activists are skeptical that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will follow through on a pledge to stop a contentious practice of appropriating rural land for commercial use, an issue that hurt the leader and his party in elections in July. In its new five-year political platform issued last week, the Cambodian government pledged to suspend new issuances of “economic land concessions”—a controversial program that was aimed at boosting agricultural exports but blamed by rights groups for a “land-grabbing crisis”—and conduct a review into existing concessions. The platform formalized a May 2012 moratorium on land-concession issuances ordered by Mr. Hun Sen. The move, according to the 61-year-old prime minister, would help meet the “needs of the people” by protecting Cambodia’s natural resources, and boosting “sustainability of the environment and socio-economic development with the halting of destruction of forest land.” Activists, however, aren’t convinced, saying that while the moratorium was laudable in theory, concrete action has been elusive so far. … Activists say the Cambodian government’s freewheeling issuance of land concessions has denuded large swaths of forests, robbed rural communities of their livelihoods and vitality, and could undercut the country’s fragile development. Already, officials have transferred control of 2.6 million hectares of land to private business from mostly subsistence farmers, according to rights groups, affecting 700,000 people and 73% of the country’s arable land in the past decade. … Agriculture accounts for more than a third of the economy, and the sector is expected to expand by 4% this year, according to the Asian Development Bank. Part of this growth stems from economic land concessions, typically issued on terms of up to 99 years to agribusinesses growing cash crops like rubber, oil palm and cashews. … “We will do more checks on economic land concessions and the Parliament will urge more action on this. The prime minister is also aware of the issue, and he will take strong actions against ministers who commit wrongdoing with regard to land concessions,” he said.

Chun Han Wong