Tyres burn during a protest by residents from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake area, where forced evictions are a major problem.
Faced with widespread evictions and opaque private sector deals, activists in Cambodia are calling on the government to be more open and transparent about land concessions, beef up mechanisms for resolving land disputes, and abide by the rule of law.
“Land security, land tenure, is not there,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), said in Phnom Penh.
“A handful (of people) will always be fearful that their land will be grabbed. I think that is an insecurity that needs to be addressed.”
Land rights remains a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge banned private property in the late 1970s in their effort to establish an agrarian society, destroying scores of land documents in the process.
It is estimated that at least two thirds of Cambodians, many of them poverty-stricken farmers, lack proper deeds to the property they live on. Over the past decade thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes, while others have fallen victim to land-grabbing. During this time of rapid economic growth, and with more growth forecast, there has been increasing demand for land in this largely agricultural country of about 15mn people, and rising land tenure insecurity, experts say.
In 2012, 232 people - including land activists, community representatives and those resisting forced eviction - were arrested in relation to land and housing issues - a 144% increase over 2011, when 95 people were arrested and 48 were detained, a report by the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said in February. Since 2003 some 400,000 people have been affected by land grabbing and land disputes in Phnom Penh and 12 other provinces, says rights group Licadho which has been mapping one of the major sources of friction and disputes - economic land concessions (ELCs).
According to ADHOC, the government had designated at least 2,657,470 hectares as ELCs (concessions for agro-industrial development) to private companies as of late 2012 - a 16.7% increase on 2011. In September 2012 the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in which he said ELCs were “benefiting a minority” in an investment climate where companies operate behind a “veil of secrecy.” “It is often unclear who is benefiting financially from land used for urban development, economic and other land concessions, and large-scale development projects.”
Land concessions have had a destabilizing effect. People living on land leased to private entities - including indigenous communities - have been nudged out of their localities, sometimes from nominally protected areas.
Moreover, community consultation and impact assessments are often deficient and kept confidential, if conducted at all, and inadequate compensation and resettlement has compounded the problem. Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, said there were cases of rural concession areas being logged for valuable wood and then left untouched, while other slated projects - such as the contentious development of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake - have stagnated after residents were evicted.
“When those developments take place they’ve got to be done properly,” he said, adding that Amnesty was concerned about the rights of those living in areas earmarked for development.
Rights groups have largely welcomed a moratorium on the granting of new ELCs, a review of existing concessions, and a nationwide land-titling programme announced by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in June 2012 to stem the number of disputes. According to ADHOC, official data states that by the end of 2012, more than 71,000 land titles had been issued through the programme.
CCHR’s Ou Virak said the government was paying attention as resistance to forced evictions had stiffened, but he feared recent initiatives would be short-lived. “They will probably go back to business as usual (after national elections in July),” he said, adding that the government’s land-titling scheme was currently only operating in non-disputed areas.
Josie Cohen, land campaigner for UK-based watchdog group Global Witness, said the political classes in Cambodia are complicit in land grabs.
“Senior Cambodian Peoples’ Party (CPP) senator-tycoons are involved in many of the country’s most high-profile and controversial concessions,” she said. Lawlessness around land deals prompted unscrupulous investors to take advantage of corruption and the weak rule of law, while responsible investors could not compete with those “cutting corners” and disregarding social and environmental concerns, she said.
“What we need is strong government regulation making it a requirement for investors to disclose (information to the public).”
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said allegations of government complicity in land-grabbing were “baseless” and, if necessary, people could take disputes to court.