The government approved nearly as many economic land concessions—despite a moratorium imposed in May—and arrested more than twice as many people over land and housing disputes in 2012 than the year before, according to new figures from rights group Adhoc.
In a report launched on Thursday entitled “A Turning Point?” the group said the government had approved at least 66 concessions last year covering a total 381,121 hectares. More than two-thirds of it came after Prime Minister Hun Sen put an indefinite hold on new concessions in May.
The government has excused the post-freeze concessions by claiming that they were already in the pipeline before the prime minister’s order came down. But Adhoc and other NGOs say that is a thin defense, not least because the government refuses to say just how many concessions were already in the works.
“The promises made to the private companies seem to be more important than the promises made to the people,” said Nicolas Agostini, who works on land issues for Adhoc and who helped write the report.
With the concessions granted last year, some 41 percent of Cambodia’s arable land and 15 percent of its entire landmass, or nearly 2.7 million hectares, is now leased to industrial-scale farms, plantations and the like, a trend that lies at the heart of the country’s most pressing human rights problems.
Adhoc and others blame the concessions for land grabs, mass forced evictions, rampant illegal logging and increasingly violent showdowns between agitated villagers and armed guards, police and soldiers. They also say that most concessions have in one way or another broken the rules, most often by going ahead without the requisite social and environmental impact assessments or input from local communities.
“As of today, evictions in Cambodia continue to illegally occur as a first, not last, resort,” the report states.
Those who have studied the concessions, including the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, say they are also failing to deliver on the government’s promise of a better life for locals. On the contrary, evicted communities often end up with worse land, fewer schools and more debt.
This has been the case in Koh Kong province’s Kiri Sakor district, where more than 500 people have been evicted by China’s Union Development Group—which has a concession to turn the area into a massive coastal resort, according to local resident Prum Sann, 51. The evictees are now living at an ill equipped relocation site 17 km away where the farming has been tough, he added.
While Mr. Sann has been threatened with eviction, with local officials and armed police showing up at his house last year, he has lived on his 60-hectare plot for nearly 30 years now, more than enough to claim tenure under the country’s Land Law, and has refused to budge.
“I have been threatened with having my home bulldozed or being forced to the relocation site,” he said when reached by telephone. “If they want my land, they will have to take my life first.”
Of the 66 concessions granted last year, Adhoc says 55 of them led to conflict and 232 arrests, more than double the 98 similar arrests the group recorded in 2011.
“Fear is now pervasive as the judicial system has consistently supported the government’s views and leveled trumped-up charges against activists,” the report says. “As a consequence, it is increasingly dangerous to represent communities and to defend the land, housing and natural resources rights of Cambodian citizens.”
Adhoc said the government was also granting ever more concessions inside protected areas. Of the roughly 381,000 hectares approved last year, more than 70 percent was in protected areas.
Mr. Agostini said granting concessions inside protected areas at least had the benefit of leading to fewer disputes with locals, as protected areas have fewer people living there to begin with.
“But I find it difficult to consider this a victory because the protected areas appear to be disappearing very fast,” he said.
According to Adhoc, concessions now cover four protected areas completely.
Adhoc did note some potentially positive policy shift in the past year, including a nationwide push being led by Mr. Hun Sen himself to hand out hundreds of thousands of private land titles to families who have until now held tenuous tenure over their homes.
But as with the moratorium on new concessions, rights groups are skeptical of what could prove to be little more than electioneering ahead of July’s national poll followed by a quick return to business as usual.
“It doesn’t mean it’s for good reasons,” Mr. Agostini said of the moratorium and titling push, “so the report is entitled ‘A Turning Point?’ with a question mark.”
For one thing, the thousands of student volunteers the prime minister has sent out across the country to measure land for the new titles have been ordered to stay away from any land actually in dispute.
The prime minister’s land titling push is also keeping clear of indigenous communities seeking communal land titles—which offer even more robust protection against outside developers than private ones—and urban slums.
“It’s not sufficient because the initiatives taken by the government don’t address the major problems,” Mr. Agostini said.
Thun Sarath, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, which signs off on most economic land concessions, said the ministry had “a team to make sure the [concessions] don’t impact the villagers.”
But he said he was “not sure” whether that “team,” the ministry’s planning and statistics department, was doing a good job. The department’s director, Hong Narith, could not be reached.
Mr. Sarath conceded that the compensation on offer for families that lose land to concessions was “a problem,” but again referred questions to “the team.”
He said the concessionairess have a responsibility to make local families better off but was not aware of any data suggesting they were.
“It’s a good question,” Mr. Sarath said. “The government should review.”