Human-rights workers last week called on international donors to take a stand against economic land concessions during next month’s annual aid-pledging conference and to call on the government to enact a moratorium on the land leases, widely blamed in the dispossession of local communities.
“Development partners should use the next Cambodian Development Cooperation Forum to urge the government to place a moratorium on the granting of economic land concessions until adequate safeguards and institutions to ensure the rule of law, revenue transparency and the protection of rights are firmly in place,” read a letter signed by five NGOs, including Bridges Against Borders Southeast Asia and NGO Forum.
The May 11 letter was addressed to Australian Ambassador Margaret Adamson and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s country chief, Ajay Markanday, who are represented on a joint government-donor working group on agriculture policy.
Citing a December 2009 report by the German development agency GTZ, the letter’s authors noted that only a 10th of the one million hectares the government has converted to economic land concessions since the early 1990s were in production.
“In most cases, investors simply cut down the forests and left the land idle or held onto the concessions waiting for the land to increase in value,” the NGOs write. “Rather than contributing to employment and poverty alleviation, [these concessions] have led to increased landlessness and deprivation, displacement and environmental destruction.”
Some 60 percent of the country’s rural families are already landless or land poor, defined as occupying less than half a hectare of land, with the number edging up two percent each year, the letter said.
“More large scale investment in land through the granting of new [economic land concessions] in the context of weak governance is guaranteed to further exacerbate this unsustainable situation,” the letter reads.
Fiona Cochaud, Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy, said the she had no comment “because the letter is not addressed to The Cambodia Daily.”
The FAO has yet to reply to e-mailed queries sent Friday.
There has been no response to the letter, according to Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, which signed the letter.
The GTZ report cited in the letter, which claims to be the fist in-depth survey of foreign direct investment in Cambodia’s land sector, fell short of coming down for or against the concessions.
Amid increased job opportunities, wages and exports, however, it said the “alarming” increase in conflicts between locals and the investors who move in and others kicked off their land before agreeing to sell, forced to accept whatever the firms offer.
The NGOs’ May 11 letter came as aid donors craft the statements they will read to the government at the aid-pledging conference on June 2 and 3, known as the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum, where pledges may rise above $1 billion.
Putu Kamayana, country director for the Asian Development Bank, which participates in regular government-donor meetings on agriculture, said he thought a land concession moratorium was unlikely.
“I don’t think we are in any position to do something like that,” he said on Thursday.
“There is a lot of investor interest in the land,” he said, “but there is a lot of land not being used…and it is also important to make sure the land is not being misused.”
A draft of the new benchmarks the donors are expected to approve in June and use as a guide for granting future aid, however, makes no specific mention of economic land concessions.
For its part, the government denies any problems with the concessions, or that only 10 percent of them are under production.
“I don’t believe it,” said Ith Nody, an undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry in charge of land concessions. “This information is not true.”
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)