Government, Opposition Debate Land Concessions, Evictions

Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun on Wednesday dismissed claims from 200 Koh Kong families suing U.K. sugar firm Tate & Lyle over land they say they were illegally evicted from, insisting that only 13 of them were still in dispute with the local plantations.

The 200 families filed a lawsuit against Tate & Lyle with the U.K.’s High Court of Justice for millions in compensation last month, alleging that the firm wrongfully profited from sugarcane grown on land they have been progressively pushed off of since 2006, allegations the firm has denied.

Mr. Sarun, in the midst of a debate at the National Assembly on a draft Agriculture Community Law, claimed that only 13 of them were actually in dispute with the plantations supplying Tate & Lyle.

“In Koh Kong, there are only 13 families left,” he said. “The authorities went to ask the people who claim they own the land if they had documents. They don’t have them.”

Even so, he said the government would supply the 13 families with a social land concession but offered no details.

Mr. Sarun raised the case as an example to counter claims from SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua that the government has been depriving farmers across the country by approving more and more of such economic land concession (ELCs) to agribusiness firms.

“Where is the land for our farmers?” she said. “There are so many communities that have lost land, in Koh Kong, in Kompong Speu.”

She claimed that some 2 million hectares were now covered by ELCs, about 10 percent of the country’s entire land area.

Mr. Sarun claimed that the figure was out of date, with the government having canceled 63 ELCs covering a total 530,000 hectares.

He said only 1.18 million hectares were now granted as ELCs, though the hectares he claimed had been canceled still did not make up the difference between his total and Ms. Sochua’s.

Local NGOs that work on land issues have long accused the government of vastly underreporting the actual number and size of the country’s ELCs.

In February, rights group Adhoc reported that more than 2.6 million hectares were now granted or reserved for private firms for ELCs.

At the annual meeting of the Agriculture Ministry last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said ELCs covered 1.5 million hectares.

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