New Land Law Would Levy Fines for Fallow Farms: Minister

In a bid to stymie speculation and increase crop yields, the latest draft of a new Agricultural Land Law would require owners of more than 5 hectares of farmland to put them under cultivation or face fines and court complaints, Agricultural Minister Veng Sakhon said on Monday.

“Anyone that leaves the land fallow without producing crops or leaves a piece of land of more than 5 hectares empty for five years following the ownership would be double-taxed or have a complaint filed to the court,” the new law says.

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A farmer ploughs after the first heavy downpour from the rainy season flooded his rice field in May (John Vink)

Mr. Sakhon cited the example of Japan, where he said steep taxes had cut down on speculators buying up land they didn’t plan to cultivate.

“We want to restrict those who purchase land and leave it uncultivated,” he said. “Some businessmen buy land and stake it out with poles without growing anything. This could slow down the economy.”

“If they are forced to pay double tax, they would not buy land and leave it unplanted,” he added.

NGO groups and farmers have panned the fast-tracked draft law, boycotting a meeting held by the ministry in December. Some fretted that the law was vaguely worded and would allow the ministry to repurpose or claim any land in Cambodia, favoring large landholders.

The law would give the ministry the ability to use soil quality and other assessments to determine how to maximize productivity on the land, and allow it to limit crops allowed on specific plots, with heavy fines doled out to those who don’t comply.

Yang Saing Koma, founder of the agricultural organization Cedac and co-founder of the farmer-oriented Grassroots Democracy Party, said that he had not closely followed the law, but that the latest provision appeared to not apply to most farmers since their holdings often amounted to fewer than 5 hectares.

“It’s not really relevant for the time being,” he said. “Most farmers have land less than that, so maybe it’s more for the big landowners.”

“But I’m still not clear on what is the purpose of the law,” he added.

Mr. Sakhon has downplayed concerns about the draft, saying that the NGOs were misleading farmers.

He said on Monday that the law was still under review by the ministry and he was unsure when it would be forwarded to the Council of Ministers.

(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)

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