Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday issued an order temporarily suspending land concessions that have led to land grabs in villages and illegal logging activities in forest reserves, highlighted by the recent murder of a prominent environmental activist.
The move came as a U.N. official launched an investigation into the impact of land concessions on local villagers concerned over forced evictions stemming from deals linked to corrupt officials.
Hun Sen’s order, a copy of which was obtained by RFA’s Khmer service, arose from an April 27 decision by the Council of Ministers requiring the government to take “immediate action to strengthen the effectiveness of land concession management.”
“The government has issued this order to all ministries, institutions, and authorities, at all levels to implement: Temporarily suspend the leasing of land concessions,” Hun Sen’s decree reads.
“All ministries, institutions, and authorities must implement the government’s policy regarding land concessions, and they must ensure that land concessions don’t affect communal land or the daily life of the community,” it said.
“Authorities must ensure that land concessions will benefit the country and the people.”
Hun Sen also ordered that groups which abuse land concessions will have their licenses revoked and the concessions will be placed under direct government management.
“Those companies that have already received licenses from the government, but have failed to honor their contracts by cutting down the forest instead of developing their concessions, encroached on the land of the people, operated businesses other than for the license granted, abused villagers, or abused communal land will have their contracts revoked,” the statement said.
Environmentalists have criticized the government over the rapid destruction of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia as a result of concessions given to foreign companies, including to those from China, or illegal logging conducted by companies outside their area of activity.
Prominent environmental activist Chut Wutty, who had been exposing the illicit activities, was shot dead on April 26 by a military policeman in a remote forest area in southwestern Koh Kong province, raising an outcry at home and overseas.
Chut Wutty had led local reporters to an area where he believed illegal logging was occurring near where a Chinese company is building a hydropower project.
The military policeman who shot Chut Wutty was also found dead, amid lingering questions over how the two were gunned down. Prosecutors said the military policeman was shot by accident by a timber company security chief, who has been charged with “unintentional murder.”
Call for revision
Hun Sen’s decree was greeted with cautious enthusiasm by opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua, who said that it does not do enough to ensure an end to irregularities with land concessions in Cambodia.
“A temporary suspension does not resolve the issues of villagers who have already lost their land. This will not end the problem,” she said.
“I appeal to the Samdech [honorific] Prime Minister Hun Sen to do more than this. The government must revise the land concession law and reveal the companies and the people who have been granted the licenses.”
Mu Sochua said that a revision of the land concession law should stipulate that those companies found to be abusing their contracts must return the site to the villagers who had previously lived there.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Prasad Subedi, on Monday visited Cambodia’s northeastern Stung Treng province to conduct a study on the impact of land concessions on local villagers.
He met with a group of families facing eviction from their community over government plans to build a hydroelectric plant on the lower Se Sen River.
During the meeting, more than 40 villagers detailed their concerns over the forced eviction, adding that logging companies granted local land concessions had been leveling the forest resources they rely on to make a living.
The villagers told Subedi that they would not oppose the government’s decision on the land concession, but asked for U.N. intervention to ensure that the companies and authorities provide them with appropriate compensation if their property is affected by development projects.
The villagers told RFA that Subedi promised to raise their concerns with government officials during his upcoming visit to Phnom Penh.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
The World Bank established the Cambodian Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) in 2002 to support the formulation of policies for land administration, management, and distribution in the country, but the government canceled the project in 2009 after the bank requested a suspension to look into complaints by residents over evictions and other issues.
During his visit to the country in February 2011, Surya Prasad Subedi discussed land rights issues with officials from local nongovernmental organizations, calling for “a swift and satisfactory solution for those who have been affected by the land conflict.”
Reported by Samean Yun, Morm Moniroth, and Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.