PHNOM PENH May 7 Cambodia's government, facing growing protests by villagers and warnings about disappearing wilderness, suspended the granting of land to domestic and foreign companies on Monday in a move to curb forced evictions and illegal logging.
Rights groups in the impoverished but resource-rich Southeast Asian country said the temporary measure did not go far enough and a permanent ban was needed.
The government said in the order, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, it would confiscate any concessions that involved the grabbing of villagers' land and illegal logging.
Environmental activists say national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia could soon vanish as foreign companies, including Chinese investors, accelerate work in protected areas.
The government said in the order the suspension was due to the "necessary and urgent need to guarantee equity and to strengthen the effectiveness of granting economic land concessions".
The area granted rose six-fold between 2010 and 2011 as the government encouraged mining and growing of rubber. Protected wilderness was not supposed to be on the list but changes to the law have carved out some of these areas for companies to use.
Companies from Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries have exploited the land grants but Chinese firms dominate the most lucrative projects - mining for gold and other minerals.
In some cases, they come in, violently evict people and cut down trees rather than do the projects they promised.
"This is too late," said Chan Soveth, an investigator at the Cambodia Human Rights and Development Organization (Adhoc). "There are still disputes with even stronger protests to come."
Last year, the government granted concessions to scores of companies to develop 7,631 sq km (2,946 sq miles) of land, most of it in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, Adhoc says.
Chut Wutty, a prominent anti-logging activist who helped expose the secretive concessions process, was shot dead last month near a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam.
A government investigation, disputed by rights groups, said the activist was shot by a military police officer after a heated argument. The officer was also killed - by accident, investigators said - and one person has been charged over that death.
"It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of this order," said Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia. "Civil society groups will continue to monitor how the situation develops." (Editing by John O'Callaghan and Robert Birsel)