Cambodia should urgently disclose all information about land ownership and rethink its “wholesale sell-off” of the country’s natural resources, a local rights group said yesterday.
The call to release information about Cambodia’s land sector, including a declaration of revenues, came as Licadho released an analysis of concessions showing that three-fifths of all of Cambodia’s arable land is under the control of mostly foreign-owned plantation firms.
The data, which exclude land allocated for mining exploration, shows that 2.14 million hectares have been leased to private firms since the government announced its forest “conversion” policy in the early 2000s and began to issue economic land concessions (ELCs).
About 43 per cent of the ELCs are Cambodian-owned, more than a third of which comprise a single concession in Pursat province owned by Pheapimex Group, which is directed by Yeay Phu, the wife of ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin. The more than 333,000-hectare concession is far larger than the Tonle Sap lake and more than 33 times the legally allowed limit.
Vietnamese and Chinese companies control a third of the land, according to Licadho’s data, with Malaysian, Thai, Korean and Singaporean companies combined holding about 17 per cent.
“One important point to stress is that the data we released today is undoubtedly incomplete and misses some ELCs that have not been made public due to a lack of systematic and complete disclosure on the part of the government,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director.
“For example, in December 2014, the Ministry of Environment merely stated that 113 companies had been given concessions within their protected areas. Licadho could only locate 73. 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.”
Companies from Vietnam and China are the two biggest “players” in the sector, Pilorge said, a finding that validates media reporting on land conflicts in recent years that have been fuelled by large-scale concessions, such as the Union Development Group’s multibillion-dollar development in Koh Kong province.
“In many instances, the granting of ELCs has resulted in the irreversible loss of primary forests, with considerably negative impact on communities. ELCs have also created access-to-water issues, a critical resource which is already being negatively affected by climate change,” she added.
Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament who heads the National Assembly’s finance commission, said that by his estimates, about 70 per cent of the concessions were sought either to resell without making an investment or to strip the natural resources from the sites.
“They make so much money by cutting down all these trees. They look for foreign investors so they can cut the trees down and make all this money without benefiting the budget whatsoever,” he said, adding that analysis of previous national budgets had shown that as little as $7 in tax was collected from ELCs per hectare.