BOUSRA, Cambodia (AP) — Authorities in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have granted hundreds of long-term land leases called economic land concessions to foreign and domestic developers to set up rubber, sugar or other plantations or mining projects. The goal was to promote development and create jobs, but many concessions have displaced local residents and cut them off from farmland and other resources.
Here’s a closer look at the issue:
HOW MUCH LAND HAS BEEN GRANTED?
Some 53,000 square kilometers (20,500 square miles) are believed to be under land concessions in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. The Cambodian government hasn’t revealed the full extent of its leases, but human rights group LICADHO has identified 272 of them covering 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) in Cambodia, or just over a tenth of the country. Most of those in Cambodia have gone to Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian companies, including several with links to top Cambodian government officials.
WHY HAVE THEY LED TO LAND CONFLICTS?
A lack of transparency has characterized the programs in all three countries. Authorities made decisions in private, and little effort has been made to consult with affected local populations. In numerous cases, people were cut off from land they occupied or farmed without warning, sometimes by force. That’s led to protests, some of which have turned violent. State-linked land conflicts have affected half a million Cambodians through evictions, livelihood deprivation or resource loss, LICADHO estimates. Disputes over land rights are the country’s No. 1 human rights problem, according to Surya Subedi, former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia.
WHAT RIGHTS DO INDIGENOUS PEOPLE HAVE?
A major problem in Cambodia is that land ownership was eradicated and title documents destroyed by the radical communist Khmer Rouge in its bid to create an agrarian utopia in the 1970s. A 2012-13 titling campaign helped thousands gain titles, but was also criticized for inconsistencies and failing to address disputes. The country’s 2001 Land Law protects indigenous people’s right to manage their traditional lands while they go through the complex registration for a communal land title, but that is often ignored. Economic land concessions must meet five criteria before being granted, including consultations with local residents, compensation under resettlement solutions and environmental and social impact assessments, but human rights groups say many concessions have failed to meet these requirements. In Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, ordinary people feel they have little recourse because their legal systems and power structures are prone to corruption.
WHAT DOES THE CAMBODIAN GOVERNMENT SAY?
Criticism of the program led the government in 2012 to suspend new concessions and it has reviewed each one in a process activists have called opaque. Some 40 have been revoked, but many disputes remain. In declaring an end to the review last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to return nearly 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) to poor families, leaving some 11,000 square kilometers for concessions. Human rights groups doubted the claims, saying authorities didn’t disclose how they reached these figures. They were also skeptical the land would be returned.
Environment Minister Say Sam Al says the concessions program was meant to “improve the livelihoods of our people” as the poor country emerged from decades of conflict, but he acknowledged problems in implementing it. He said he hopes the government’s recent moves will “close a difficult chapter for Cambodia.” The broader goal is to modernize the economy, he said, which will involve change for indigenous peoples. “Through economic growth, job creation, new opportunities,” he said, “we hope that the sons and daughters of these people will abandon their dependence on forests and move on to something else.”