The managers of some of Cambodia’s most controversial agribusiness plantations on Thursday blamed their many land disputes on the government, accusing officials of failing to educate communities about the benefits of their giant farms.
Rights groups blame economic land concessions (ELCs) for some of Cambodia’s worst problems, including deforestation and mass forced evictions. But when the Agriculture Ministry held a workshop on Thursday to explain to ELC managers what the government was doing to help them, the managers took the opportunity to vent their frustrations with the state.
Lim Heng, director of the An Mady Group, which owns rubber plantations around the country, said the government was too quick to accuse ELCs of breaking the law. The government recently finished revoking dozens of ELC contracts or shrinking their land holdings as punishment for a variety of infractions, land-grabbing among them.
Three of the An Mady Group’s plantations are located inside or around the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, where indigenous minority communities accuse the company of clearing the communal forests they have relied on for generations.
But Mr. Heng said the company’s troubles were the government’s fault, as it had failed to tell local villagers about the new plantation jobs coming their way.
“We have many land disputes with local people because the government doesn’t help the local people understand the benefits of the ELCs. The investment is for the national economy and for the local people,” he said.
“I would like to ask the Agriculture Ministry to help local people understand that economic land concessions will create jobs for them,” he added.
The government has touted ELCs as a way of pulling rural communities out of poverty by offering them the chance to move from foraging and subsistence farming to jobs chopping sugarcane or tapping rubber trees. But it has failed to prove the strategy is working. The few independent studies on the local impact of ELCs suggest the communities on the whole end up no better off—and in some cases worse off—after trading their farms and forests for low-paid seasonal work.
Leng Rithy, country manager for the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), whose Cambodian plantations cover some 100,000 hectares, admonished the Agriculture Ministry for trying—and failing—to settle their land disputes in far-flung provinces.
“We cannot depend on Agriculture Ministry officials in Phnom Penh because they work in the air-conditioning, so they don’t know the real problems between the companies and the local people,” he said. “We need help from local authorities because they understand the problems.”
Last year, VRG was expelled from the Forest Stewardship Council, a U.S.-based group that certifies firms for sustainable forest management, for what the council said were the company’s illegal logging and human rights abuses in Cambodia.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sokhon put the blame back on the ELCs.
“The companies blame the government, but they are always hiding their bad behavior,” he said on Thursday.
Mr. Sokhon said it fell on the companies to tell local communities what they were up to, not the government.
“I think the companies should put up posters on their ELCs to inform the local people about their investment plans,” he said. “The companies must act first because it is the companies’ responsibility, and the government officials cannot do it. Then if they face problems with the local people, we can find a solution together.”
The minister also accused ELC managers of lying about how much land they cleared in order to avoid associated fees and suggested tighter monitoring.
“I think this is a big mistake by the companies, and if the problem reaches journalists, they will write stories about a problem that should not be happening, and it will affect the Agriculture Ministry badly,” he said.
Latt Ky, land and natural resources program manager for rights group Adhoc, said both sides were to blame.
Contacted about the workshop afterward, he said he was “surprised” that the companies had blamed their troubles on the state.
“In reality, the companies [do] not pay well [nor] respect human rights. That is the most important thing,” he said.
Mr. Ky said the companies were at fault for often failing to put the government’s “tiger skin” policy into practice—whereby pre-existing communities living inside ELCs remain untouched—and the government for failing to ensure they do.
In his years monitoring the impact of the country’s ELCs, Mr. Ky said he had not once come across a concession that was an unqualified boon to locals.
“I never heard about a good case like that,” he said.