| PHNOM PENH
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
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
"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
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Robert Birsel)