At least 272 companies own plantations covering some 2.14 million hectares across the country, more than when Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a freeze on the approval of new economic land concessions (ELCs) three years ago and despite a spate of recent cancellations, according to rights group Licadho.
Licadho released the numbers Monday—along with a breakdown of the countries the companies come from and the crops they are growing—to push the government into giving the public a full accounting of what has been an opaque business.
The government touts economic land concessions as a pillar of the country’s economic development, bringing much-needed jobs to rural communities and growing the rubber and sugar the rest of the world wants to buy.
NGOs, however, blame them for some of Cambodia’s worst and most prevalent human rights abuses. They fault the concessions, which cover more than half of the country’s arable land, for driving thousands of families off farms and into destitution, sparking protests that police and soldiers have suppressed with deadly force, decimating the country’s forests, and breaking a raft of laws in the process.
They also accuse the government of hiding the full extent of the concessions’ reach.
“Large-scale concessions have had a track record of destroying livelihoods and natural resources as well as negatively affecting development projects,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in a statement Monday. “If the government is serious about improving its policies on land, it must commit itself to being fully transparent about its dealings. Cambodians have the right and need to know who occupies areas next to their homes.”
Licadho says the Ministry of Agriculture, which grants most ELCs, maintains a list that is incomplete and consistently out of date. It says the Ministry of Environment, which grants the rest, does even less, disclosing the total number of concessions and amount of land leased, but no other details. Of the 113 companies the Environment Ministry said had active concessions under its jurisdiction as of December, Licadho says it could confirm only 73.
The group says it came up with its latest figures using the Agriculture Ministry’s website, official announcements published in the Royal Gazette, and its own field visits. It concedes that its data is incomplete and may occasionally be wrong.
“The general opacity of land concession dealings, as well as the lack of accessible and systematic disclosure by the government, will inevitably lead to inaccuracies by organizations attempting to shed light on this sector,” Ms. Pilorge said in an email. “We therefore believe that today’s publication cannot and should not be a substitute for the government’s own data, and we call for the relevant ministries to be fully transparent about land dealings.”
A spokesman for the Environment Ministry could not be reached.
At the Agriculture Ministry, Undersecretary of State Eang Sophalleth said the ministry’s online list was a work in progress, and was not up to date because a review of concessions ordered by Mr. Hun Sen in 2012 was ongoing.
“We have updated the information for the companies that we have already checked,” he said. “But we are still reviewing the companies that have not implemented their contracts or have not followed the law, and we will revert those concessions back to the state.”
Mr. Sophalleth said that ELCs had earned the ministry more than $1 million over the past year, but said he could not be more specific because the review was not yet complete.
Both the agriculture and environment ministries have recently organized press conferences to announce that certain concessions had been revoked for failing to meet the terms of their contracts with the government, part of the review of concessions the prime minister ordered when he put a freeze on new ELCs in May 2012. But the ministries would not reveal the specific infraction of each concession being canceled, and not one was fined or prosecuted. They said some of the concessions were rescinded or downsized because they were granted on land locals were already farming, but offered no details.
And despite the cancellations, Cambodia still has more ELCs covering more land than before the mid-2012 freeze, according to Licadho. In March 2012, the NGO said it had evidence of 227 plantations covering 2.04 million hectares.
“The [new] data shows that, even after the well-publicized concession revocations by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, land concessions still cover a massive 2.14 million hectares,” Ms. Pilorge said, adding that the true figure was probably higher.
For months after Mr. Hun Sen announced the freeze, the government continued to grant ELCs to companies whose applications it claimed were already in the pipeline.
In its new maps, Licadho breaks down the concessions by the country the owners come from and what they are growing. According to the group’s figures, Cambodian companies own a little less than half of the 2.14 million hectares of ELC land it knows of. Chinese and Vietnamese companies own roughly 350,000 hectares each. Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Thai companies each own between 79,000 and 112,000 hectares.
The most popular crop by far is rubber, covering at least 834,000 hectares, about 39 percent of all ELC land. Trailing far behind are sugar, paper pulp, cassava and palm oil.
Rubber and sugar plantations have proven especially controversial. Families in Koh Kong province are currently suing the U.K.’s Tate & Lyle for having bought sugar from a pair of Thai-owned plantations accused of stealing their land. And the International Finance Corporation is mediating talks between Vietnamese-owned rubber plantations in Ratanakkiri province it has invested in and families whose farms they allegedly grabbed.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)