Past Bodes Poorly for Future of Land Concession Freeze

When the government ordered a moratorium on all new commercial logging concessions in 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen said losing vast tracts of the country’s forests was his “biggest mistake” of the past decade. “I will not make that mistake again,” he vowed, according to a report by The Cambodia Daily at the time.

More than a decade on, with that moratorium still in place, large-scale logging has continued apace as firms find ways around the rules. And that experience is part of the reason why human rights and environmental groups are casting a wary eye at the prime minister’s announcement Monday to temporarily stop granting any new economic land concessions, which now cover 2 million hectares around the country.

“The [land concession] companies, they know how to manipulate the government rules,” said Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc.

Groups such as Adhoc and many others have railed against land concessions for years as the source of some of Cambodia’s worst human rights and environmental abuses, from mass evictions to deforestation. Some were also quick to point out that the new moratorium on land concessions comes less than a month ahead of commune elections on June 3.

Equally quick to see an opportunity in the Mr. Hun Sen’s announcement, some groups are also pressing the government to make the temporary freeze a permanent ban.

But even if the government heeds those calls and economic land concessions officially become a thing of the past, historical experience offers little hope for any practical change to business as usual when it comes to exploitation of the country’s forests.

Technically, the 2001 moratorium on commercial logging concessions remains firmly in place. And last month Mr. Hun Sen publicly urge officials to stop firms from using their land concessions, where they are supposed to develop agriculture, as a mere pretext for commercial logging.

Companies, however, continue to find ways around the rules.

Hong Kong-based China Asean Resources openly describes its plans to clear tens of thousands of hectares of forest on its economic land concession in Kratie province. On its website, the company calls its timber reserves the “lifeblood” of its business in Cambodia. Asked about their professed plans, the firm’s executives downplayed the logging as preparation work for the rubber plantation they say they will establish once the land is cleared, and which they expect to start harvesting by 2016.

The government periodically makes good on its threats to take land concessions away from firms who fall short of their contractual obligations to develop their sites for agro-industry. But human rights groups say the trees are often long gone by the time authorities get around to canceling those errant concessions, while nobody is ever prosecuted for the damage done.

Logging operations are also moving forward on the backs of large-scale mining and hydro-power concessions, which cover around 1.9 million hectares of land on their own. Such projects are not covered by latest moratorium order.

The government has also offered few details on the moratorium announced Monday; how long it may last, or what it hopes to achieve.

Officials at the Ministry of Land Management referred questions on the land concession freeze to the Agriculture Ministry, where officials said they had nothing to do with the order and declined to comment. At the Ministry of Environment, Secretary of State Thoeuk Kroenvuth said he did know why the order had been issued at this point in time, but denied any link to the looming election.

Mr. Kroenvuth could not elaborate on how the government would review and flag existing concessions for possible abuses, as Mr. Hun Sen also promised, but said the government knows what it will do.

“They have a master plan to work on it,” he said.

One thing is also clear: This moratorium comes after a record year for handing out vast swathes of land to private investment firms. According to calculations from local rights group Licadho, which were based on official government documents, about 251,000 hectares of land concessions were granted last year alone, while another 40,000 hectares were allocated between January and March of this year. That means that mining and agribusiness firms now control a combined 3.9 million hectares of land, nearly a quarter of the country’s entire surface area, according to Licadho’s estimates.

Existing limits on the size of concessions have also been abused over the years – and some in a very transparent fashion. It is common for firms to find their way around the government’s 10,000-hectares-per-concession limit by taking out adjacent plots under various subsidiaries of a parent firm, or registering the extra land in the name of spouses.

In Mondolkiri province, for example, Licadho found the Vietnamese owners of a conjoined plot of 38,000-hectares of land had registered the massive concession under four thinly veiled joint-stock partners: Pacific Lotus, Pacific Pearl, Pacific Pride and Pacific Grand-each one of the “separate” concessions coming in just under the 10,000-hectare limit.

“It is too late for the government to issue an order temporarily postponing economic land concession,” said Pen Bonnar, Adhoc’s coordinator in Ratanakkiri, one of the most heavily concessioned provinces in the country.

“We have little hope for this order because past government regulations to stop and eliminate encroachment on forest land have had no effect and the action happens double,” he said.

“This order only looks good,” he added.

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