Land Grabs in Cambodia

An anti-logging activist is murdered, a teenage girl is shot and killed by police during a forcible eviction, 13 women are sentenced to up to two-and-a-half years in prison simply for holding a protest on land from which they’ve been expropriated. These are recent examples of the all-too-familiar human rights abuses that result from the Cambodian government’s disastrous land policy.

Investment in Cambodia’s agriculture sector is long overdue. But instead of passing reforms that would help the country’s many farmers and villagers better use their land — 80 percent of the total population is rural — the government has signed off almost 11,600 square miles of Cambodia’s arable land to investors, including major Chinese and Vietnamese companies and local firms with ties to the governing Cambodian People’s Party (C.P.P.).

That’s more than two-thirds of all arable land in Cambodia, according to a senior adviser at the human rights group Licadho. What’s more, according to Amnesty International, in 2008 some 150,000 Cambodians were at risk of being evicted, meaning that some 420,000 Cambodians have been affected by evictions since 2003.

One major problem is the widespread grant of so-called Economic Land Concessions (E.L.C.). Under Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law, the government is allowed to make use of all “private state land” and lease up to about 25,000 acres to a company for as many as 99 years. The government has carved out some of the country’s best land one bit at a time, evicting many poor people for the commercial benefit of a few.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has documented, for example, that in 2006 the private police force of Ly Yong Phat, a well-known senator from the C.P.P., with the assistance of police proper, had relocated dozens of families from land he had obtained through an E.L.C. in the southwestern province of Koh Kong to make way for a sugarcane field.

Economic Land Concessions deals are typically handled by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Council for the Development of Cambodia and then approved by the office of the prime minister, with little participation from the affected communities or the local authorities.

Farmers only become aware of the transactions when construction companies come in to remove them, bulldozers and security guards in tow.

There are also environmental consequences. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries are being turned into rubber plantations. The pristine forests of Botum Sakor National Park, in southwest Cambodia, are being destroyed so that a Chinese company can build a gambling and luxury resort. Prey Lang, an extensive evergreen and semi-evergreen forest in northern Cambodia, is under threat of deforestation as luxury wood is being cut down illegally and exported to Vietnam, sometimes with the assistance of Cambodian soldiers.

The poor have few legal recourses against these abuses. The majority of Cambodians today do not possess official title to the land they live on, partly because under the Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979, private property was abolished and the country’s land-titling system was destroyed.

The 2001 Land Law does allow people to apply for official documents if they can clearly show that they occupied and used a plot of land for at least five years prior to 2001. But the application is time-consuming and expensive and well beyond the means of many. And without official documents, the poor who reside on desirable land become easy targets for the powerful and well-connected.

One of the only means of resistance is public protest. But that often brings more abuses still. In 2009, the residents around Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh were forcibly evicted to make way for a vast luxury development operated by a joint venture involving a company owned by a senator.

There was so much bad press about the deal that last year, under pressure from NGOs, the World Bank suspended loans to Cambodia. The government then ordered that about 30 acres of the confiscated land be returned to the 900 families who had refused to accept the inadequate compensation.

But the Cambodian authorities have refused to determine the exact area to be returned, so residents continue to protest, despite arrests and the threat of detention.

Local NGOs, Cambodian legislators and the media all have a part to play in stopping these abuses through advocacy. But as the World Bank’s intervention last year shows, foreign governments and international organizations can also help.

Some members of the Cambodian Parliament (including one of the authors) have called on the U.S. government to temporarily suspend aid to the Cambodian military until a full review of E.L.C. is conducted and compensation is paid to affected communities. (We have been unsuccessful so far.)

We also call on the European Union to suspend some features of its Everything but Arms (E.B.A.) initiative, which grants duty-free access to products from many developing countries, including Cambodia.

Though the E.B.A. program was designed to help poor countries by stimulating their exports, it has had some unintended downsides. In Cambodia, it suddenly revived sugar production, which had been halted since the 1970s, by turning sugarcane into a high-demand crop. As a result, according to the Cambodian NGO Adhoc and others, E.L.C. for sugarcane production have claimed farmland throughout Cambodia, leaving many people landless.

The E.U. should send a high-level delegation to assess land grabs in Cambodia and suspend Cambodia’s benefits under the E.B.A. until a full report is released. It’s time the Cambodian government be held accountable for violating its people’s basic rights.

Mu Sochua is a member of Parliament in Cambodia from the Sam Rainsy Party. Cecilia Wikström, of Sweden, is a member of the European Parliament.

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