Despite a moratorium on the granting of new economic land concessions (ELCs), the government has approved at least 32 ELCs since Prime Minister Hun Sen announced their suspension in May.
According to sub-decrees dated from May onward and provided by local human rights group Adhoc, Mr. Hun Sen signed off on 32 land concessions—granted to local and foreign firms for commercial agriculture projects—that cover a total of 208,000 hectares across nine provinces.
The government reiterated that Mr. Hun Sen’s moratorium remains in force, adding that all 32 land concessions approved since May 7 were already in the process of receiving approval and, therefore, were not covered by the suspension.
Officials have refused to say just how many more land concessions are in the pipeline, or how many were in the process of approval prior to the moratorium.
Human rights groups have described the situation in terms of a large “loophole,” which could allow the granting of many more land concessions despite the announced moratorium.
“Samdech Hun Sen signed the sub-decrees, but they are not for new land concessions,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers.
All sub-decrees signed since May concerned firms that had applied for a land concession prior to Mr. Hun Sen’s moratorium, Mr. Siphan said.
“These companies, they need to spend at least five or six months to conduct environmental and social impact assessments with the ministries involved,” he added.
International and national human rights groups initially welcomed the suspension of the government’s land concession policy, which has been singled out as the country’s most pressing rights concern, blamed for everything from rampant deforestation to mass evictions and violence against protesters.
Rights groups claim that some 400,000 Cambodians have been forced off their land by land concessions in the past decade. In his latest report, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, said that concessions were responsible for “serious and widespread” abuse.
The last approved land concession confirmed by Adhoc—the organization presently has sub-decrees only up to October 4—was approved on September 18, for a 6,000-hectare rubber plantation inside the Kulen wildlife sanctuary in Preah Vihear province.
Of the 32 concessions approved since May, 19 are inside environmental protection zones and the majority are for rubber plantations. Most are in the northern and eastern provinces, including nine in Preah Vihear, six in Oddar Meanchey and five in Mondolkiri province.
Technically speaking, the sub-decrees convert state public property to state private property specifically for the purpose of granting land as a concession to private companies. To start work on their land, a firm by law needs to sign off on a contract with the appropriate ministry.
The Ministry of Agriculture, which grants most land concessions, and the Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for concessions in protected areas, are in the process of reviewing land concessions across the country.
Ny Chakrya, chief investigator for Adhoc, questioned the timing of Mr. Hun Sen’s signing off on the concessions post-moratorium.
“Maybe some sub-decrees he agreed to before the announcement in May, but why did he also sign in July, August and September?” Mr. Chakrya asked.
“After May, or two or three more months, it must stop.”
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