NGOs Say Selling Off Old Land Concessions Is Premature

The government’s announcement on Wednesday that companies looking to start rubber plantations could skirt a moratorium on new economic land concessions (ELCs) by taking over existing, dormant ones continued to make a good impression on prospective investors in town Thursday.

Ly Phalla, who heads the Agriculture Ministry’s general directorate of rubber, made the pitch to new investors on the first of a two-day summit on the rubber industry that drew industry experts, consultants and traders to Phnom Penh from across the region. Of the nearly 1 million hectares currently being leased out for rubber plantations, he said only a fraction was in use, leaving much of the rest up for grabs.

Rights groups, however, said Thursday that it was irresponsible to solicit new investors when the government had not yet fixed the flaws in the country’s controversial ELC system and had yet to finish a review of existing ELCs.

“It sounds like putting the cart before the ox,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant on land rights issues for the NGO Licadho.

Rights groups have long blamed ELCs as being a key driver of the country’s rampant deforestation and land grabs. They say some 700,000 Cambodians have been affected by ELCs through evictions, land loss or forest clearance since 2000.

Amid the mounting criticism, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced an immediate freeze on new ELCs in May 2012. The government announced the start of a legal review of existing ELCs at the same time but has shown few signs of progress since.

“We have not yet seen a systematic review of ELCs granted so far; as such, it seems extremely premature to talk of transferring of existing ELCs,” Mr. Pellerin said.

“It seems very hasty to talk about distributing large amounts of property…with a high probability of [pre-existing] private ownership leading to the same land conflicts,” he added.

Chhay Thy, coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri province, a hotbed of Cambodia’s rubber industry, says he has not seen much improvement since the freeze on new concessions.

In the nearly two years since the moratorium—and the accompanying review of existing concessions—was announced, he knew of only one plantation in the province being asked to temporarily stop clearing land.

As for Mr. Phalla’s plans to start transferring existing concessions to new owners, he said, “it’s not good because the government has not yet fixed the problem with old ELCs that have grabbed villagers’ land and cut down their forests…. The new companies who want to start rubber plantations will just follow the practices of the last one.”

Now that the government says it wants to clean up wayward concessions, it should be focusing on giving the land back to those who lost it, not other companies, said Eang Vuthy, head of Equitable Cambodia.

In many cases, he said, “The ELC should not have been granted…. So now the government cannot grant the land to another company, it has to give it back to the people.”

Back at the rubber summit, Mr. Phalla’s words from the day before were going down well.

Asked if it would recommend investing in Cambodia’s rubber industry, Lankem, a Sri Lankan firm in the process of buying out an existing plantation in Kompong Thom province, cited Mr. Phalla’s plan as a key reason for why it might.

“We heard some good news from His Excellency Ly Phalla that they are looking at these ELCs in a more positive manner,” said Sriyan Eriyagama, the company’s executive director.

Ranveer Chauhan, who handles natural rubber for Singapore-based commodities trader Olam International, said his firm was accustomed to working in places others consider “not very attractive,” but that Lankem had made a good case for Cambodia.

“At this moment I am not looking for projects in Cambodia, but after listening to you I will actually look at it very closely,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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