Cambodia approves land concessions, despite ban

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia’s government has ignored a suspension on new land concessions to private companies, announcements in an official publication showed, despite ordering a freeze after growing discontent over forced evictions and illegal logging.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) talks to the media during a local commune election in Kandal province June 3, 2012. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on 12 sub-decrees on June 7 and 12 granting a total of 44,052 hectares (108,855 acres) and privatizing 35,461 hectares set aside for wildlife sanctuaries and a national park to various companies for agro-businesses.

The details were announced in three editions this month of the Royal Gazette, which publishes all official decrees.

The issue is highly contentious in Cambodia, where tens of thousands of people have been evicted from land to make way for foreign and domestic firms, prompting widespread protests, violent clashes and in some cases, jail terms for those who refused to move.

Hun Sen signed an order in May to suspend all new concessions but reacted angrily on Tuesday to newspaper reports about the leases, which he said were agreed prior to the ban.

“I have not signed anything granting new land,” Hun Sen said in a speech to volunteers working on land disputes. “The land, which was already granted in principle, must be proceeded based on legal and existing procedures.”

Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, which monitors forced evictions in Cambodia, called on the government to declare how many more concessions were in the pipeline because there was a loophole “so big it swallows the ban itself”.

“A true ban on new land concessions is desperately needed ... a true ban means no new concessions starting now. Period,” she wrote in an email to Reuters.

Licadho said it has documented at least 13 concessions totaling more than 80,000 hectares since the May 7 ban, an area bigger than Singapore.

Companies from Cambodia, Vietnam and several other countries have exploited the land grants but Chinese firms dominate the most lucrative projects - mining for gold and other minerals.

The area granted rose six-fold between 2010 and 2011 as the government encouraged investment in mining and rubber. Changes in the laws have allowed use of protected land, but activists say some firms breached their agreements by cutting down forests and using violence to evict people.

Chut Wutty, an anti-logging activist who exposed secret concessions, was shot dead in April near a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam. A state investigation said he was shot by a military police officer after an argument. The officer was also killed - by accident, investigators said - and one person has been charged over that death.

The Royal Gazette said the 12 sub-decrees signed in June granted companies rights to grow rubber and build a “natural city” with a golf course under a 70-year lease. (Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)