Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the resumption of the government’s land concession practice on Tuesday, reversing an order issued last year ceasing the awarding of public land to private companies until the legal basis for their distribution had been approved.
“I have to make a decision for my country’s development,” Hun Sen said at the 8th Government-Private Sector Forum in Phnom Penh.
“I can’t wait. So I have gone ahead to provide concession land to investors. This is a necessary way to attract investment,” he said.
On Oct 18, Hun Sen pledged to reclaim and redistribute to the poor large tracts of concession land being held illegally by private companies and powerful individuals.
At the time, he also voiced support for donor-backed plans to create social concessions in which landless Cambodians would be given land to farm.
Concessions were to be halted until a subdecree detailing the procedures for granting concessions was approved and those larger than the legal 10,000 hectare limit were reduced.
However, Hun Sen said Monday that investors had voiced concern about the slow progress being made in passing the subdecree as well as the bureaucratic delays encountered when trying to secure a concession.
Hun Sen also took swipes at the international community and UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht—who have criticized the government’s opaque land concession deals.
“I’m asking myself: ‘Am I the prime minister of a sovereign country or the prime minister of a country under colonial rule?’” Hun Sen told the conference.
“[Peter Leuprecht] lives in New York, comes once in a while and questions me like a prisoner,” he added.
Leuprecht warned in a report made public two weeks ago that the country could face threats to its political stability if it continued the “failed” land concession system.
According to the report, as of February 2003, 40 economic land concessions covering 809,296 hectares—equal to about 4 percent of Cambodia’s territory—had been approved, with little to no benefit to average Cambodians.
“We find this news very disturbing,” Nisha Agrawal, World Bank country manager, said Monday night in response to Hun Sen’s announcement.
Passage of the concession subdecree and redistribution of concession land was one of the benchmarks approved during the Consultative Group meeting in December, Agrawal said.
“We were really hoping this would be the year Cambodia would honor its commitments…. If they want people to take them seriously, they have to follow through on what they say they will do.”
Agrawal said she didn’t understand why the subdecree has been held up as it does not require a National Assembly vote and has been in the works for months.
Mong Reththy, whose company owns several plantations around the country, said he was pleased with the prime minister’s announcement.
“From now on, agriculture investors are happy,” he said.
However, he warned the government to be careful when granting land concessions. A 10,000 hectare plantation cost $31 million to develop, Mong Reththy said, and warned that companies seeking larger concession could merely be trying to cut trees.