The Cambodian government gave away nearly 800,000 hectares (two million acres) of public land in concessions to private companies last year, a local human rights group said in a report Thursday, as Phnom Penh residents and villagers in northwestern provinces staged protests over land seizures.
Cambodia-based ADHOC said in its annual report that in 2011, the government issued 123 land concession licenses to private companies by transferring the status of land use from public to private.
The licenses cover a total of 752,000 hectares of land, two thirds of which are protected forest and wildlife preserves, it said.
ADHOC Director Thun Saray blamed the land concessions for provoking serious disputes across the country and urged the government to reconsider its policy.
“The government should keep the land for villagers. [It could] ask the private companies to bring good crops to plant and good planting techniques, but let the villagers farm and have the companies just wait to harvest and process it,” Thun Saray said at a press conference launching the report.
“If we can do that, all parties will profit,” he said.
Land disputes are a common problem in Cambodia, where an estimated 30,000 people a year are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which banned private property and forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
Thun Saray said that so far, the Ministry of Agriculture has given concessions of 2.2 million hectares of land—which amounts to 12 percent of Cambodia’s total land area—to 225 companies.
He added that the Ministry of Industry has given 56 companies licenses to explore mines, and that there may be more companies that have received land licenses from other ministries.
The government argues that it has made the land concessions to private companies in the hopes that people’s living standards will be improved.
“The land concessions have improved the economic situation of and provided employment for villagers,” Cambodia’s Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan said.
"Their living standards have changed,” he said.
But some disagree that the land concessions bring jobs and prosperity to many villagers, who are instead evicted from their homes.
Thun Saray said agricultural companies that were provided land concessions by the government had moved to evict villagers from the areas without compensation.
Opposition political Son Chhay said that the government’s policy of giving land to private companies is not economically beneficial for the villagers involved.
“[They] result in evictions and increased poverty because those companies evict people without proper compensation,” he said.
The land concessions have also provoked serious disputes over land and housing throughout the country.
In 2011, 127 communities were evicted from their land to pave the way for takeover by land concession companies, Son Chhay said.
Meanwhile, Cambodians in the northwest and in the capital staged protests over the loss of their land on Thursday.
In the northwest, more than 200 villagers protested in front of the Battambang provincial court, demanding it reconsider its decision to hand a plot of land they have been farming over to suspected land speculators.
The villagers, from Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces, said they had been farming the land since 2003 until the court handed the 600 hectares (1,500 acres) over to two tycoons.
They demanded that the the court reverse its decision and hand back the land, which they say is state-owned public land and therefore should not be given to private individuals.
In Phnom Penh, over 100 residents from the city’s Boeung Kak community staged a protest in front of the city hall demanding that city officials recognize the demarcation of their community land.
The protest followed a promise last week from city officials to resolve issues over allocation of alternative land for evicted families based on an assurance from Prime Minister Hun Sen in September.
Nearly 20,000 people have either been evicted from their homes in the area or are at risk of losing them since a Cambodian-Chinese company, Shukaku, which is owned by a politician from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, was granted a 99-year lease in the area in 2007 and began building a luxury residential project.
The protesters denied an allegation made by a local newspaper that they are members of the political opposition and that their protest is designed to serve the opposition’s interest.
“They want to confuse the public and [make them think] that the protest is not because of our housing. They want the public to think we are bad people,” community representative Tep Vanny said.
Several residents were imprisoned on assault charges during the forced eviction.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.