Gov’t Played Politics With Land in 2013: Adhoc

The number of new land disputes recorded by rights group Adhoc nearly doubled last year, while total disputes are on the rise again after a brief lull around the time of July’s election, according to the rights group’s latest figures.

In a comprehensive review of land issues through 2013, Adhoc said land security for the vast majority of Cambodians was as tenuous as ever, despite a sharp rise in social land concessions for the poor and a moratorium on concessions for agribusiness firms, which are behind most forced evictions and land grabs.

“Legal certainty does not exist in Cambodia and it is likely that powerful interests will prevail over people’s rights,” Adhoc says in its report. “Cambodians still have little protection against arbitrary and corrupt judicial and government systems. As such, the extent to which government promises to truly ensure land security to the most poor and vulnerable and give these people effective remedies against land rights violations is uncertain.”

Amid widespread and mounting rebuke of the government’s sale of vast tracts of land to agribusiness firms, often in protected areas, Prime Minister Hun Sen in mid-2012 put an indefinite freeze on new economic land concessions and ordered a legal review of the deals it had already made.

Adhoc on Thursday confirmed that no such deals were made in 2013 and said the government’s claim that some 330,000 hectares had been taken back from wayward or idle concessionaires matched its own estimates.

In another positive move, it said the government at the same time ramped up the approval of new social land concessions for Cambodians without a claim to land—629,000 hectares in 2013 compared to 101,000 hectares the year before.

But of the 485 social concessions granted in 2013, it added, 429 of them, or 88 percent, came in the six months leading up to July’s hotly contested national elections.

In its report, Adhoc says the timing of the social concessions was a “populist stunt” at worst and, at the least, “cast a shadow over the government’s efforts, as it indicates the policy was executed for political gains.”

Adhoc president Thun Saray, speaking at a press conference Thursday, added that one third of those social concessions were approved just in the one-month period before election day.

The NGO also warned that many of those new social concessions—93,000 hectares worth—were granted over officially protected areas, further threatening the country’s already thinning forests as families start to move in to clear the land for new farms.

The report states that none of the government’s actions—not the surge in social concessions nor the freeze on concessions to agribusiness firms—brought down the number of land disputes across the country. Rather, Adhoc says it handled 135 new disputes last year involving 6,488 families, nearly double the 70 new disputes it handled the year before.

Though the number of families and the amount of land involved dropped last year, Adhoc says the freeze on commercial concessions may have played a part.

Adhoc notes, too, that disputes are back on the rise in 2014. It recorded 52 new disputes during the first three months of this year, compared to 36 over the same period in 2013.

“During the few months before and after the national elections last year, for each month we received three or four small cases involving residential boundary disputes,” said Chan Soveth, the deputy head of Adhoc’s land program. “This year, during the first three months, we have seen a big increase.”

While more detailed and covering more of the country, Adhoc’s latest figures trace much the same pattern as a report on land disputes released by rights group Licadho in April. Using its own data from the field, it, too, said cases were back on the rise this year after a dip around the 2013 elections and likewise attributed the trend to a political ploy by the ruling CPP.

The government quickly shot back at the Licadho report, accusing the rights group of vastly inflating its figures. It said a private land-titling push Mr. Hun Sen kicked off soon after announcing the freeze on new agribusiness concessions in 2012 had also secured the land tenure of some 400,000 families and cut down on disputes.

But Mr. Saray, the Adhoc president, said the government should avoid knee-jerk reactions to unflattering figures and accept the reality.

“Our government should be brave to acknowledge what is really happening in our society and should not strike out every time there is a report that is balanced, with [evidence] and proof,” he said.

“We have evidence, witnesses and villagers who have suffered,” he added. “If the government keeps saying these are lies and exaggerations, the government will be responsible for everything.”

Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, declined to comment on the new report, referring questions to Lor Davuth, a director general in the ministry, who could not be contacted.

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