Illegally Held Land To Be Reclaimed

The government will reclaim land currently held illegally by companies and powerful individuals and redistribute some to the poor while opening the rest to legitimate investment, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday.

“We must effectively enforce the land law to repossess state land and to fight the illegal fencing of land,” he said at the Cam­bodia Development Council, citing slow reform on land, forestry and fisheries as major mistakes made during his tenure.

Addressing a national forum to assess the government’s progress on land issues in the last five years, Hun Sen said rich and powerful individuals and companies continue to claim state land without developing it, aiming to earn money by selling land at a profit after it appreciates.

As a result, much of Cam­bo­dia’s vacant land is unavailable to the 15 percent to 20 percent of Cambodians who have no land, as well as to investors who will de­velop the land sustainably.

“Those who have land have no capital but those who have capital have no land concessions be­cause the land has already been given to this person and that person,” he said.

Hun Sen said the government would take illegally claimed land and give it to the poor, voicing support for donor-backed plans to create social concessions, in which landless Cambodians will receive tracts of land to farm. He compared grabbed land to horses let out of a stable, saying, “It’s time to get the horses and give them to people who are really riders.”

Hun Sen also said no more land will be awarded to companies for development until a subdecree on so-called economic concessions is approved, calling into question a host of controversial projects now under way.

Once that subdecree is ready, an inter-ministerial commission will review all existing concessions to determine whether they conform to the 2002 land law, said Minister of Land Manage­ment Im Chhun Lim in a speech following the prime minister’s.

Observers have long criticized concessions as benefiting only a rich minority while doing nothing to reduce poverty.

The subject was raised in a

Dec 19 report by Peter Leu­precht, UN human rights representative to Cambodia.

“The Government’s policy of granting large-scale agricultural and forestry concessions to private interests in a non-transparent manner continues to represent a serious threat to the poor,” Leu­precht wrote.

While the government pledged to address land issues in its 2001 Governance Action Plan and December 2002 National Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, “implementation of these measures has been inadequate,” he added.

Despite the scope of the problem and the governments failure to deal with land disputes so far, donors and NGO representatives were optimistic about the prime minister’s speech.

“It was great to hear all those messages so clearly, and in the context of a national action plan for land reform and development policy,” said Mike Bird, country director of Oxfam Great Britain.

“A thorough review of all major land transactions is essential if we are going to make progress in tackling poverty and creating equitable growth,” Bird said.

Willi Zimmerman, former team-leader for the German development agency GTZ, said that Hun Sen’s speech provided the kind of high-level support needed to challenge existing concessions awarded illegally and allegations of land grabbing.

“He confirmed that the government is more committed, and that land issues have more political priority,” Zimmerman said.

Now, individuals, NGOs and donors can take problematic cases directly to Hun Sen, he added, citing as likely first options the highly controversial concessions moving forward in Kom­pong Speu province’s Oral Wildlife Sanctuary and Mondo­lkiri’s O’Reang district.

 

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