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Land Grabs Often Driven by Investors Seeking Land, Global Witness Says

Screenshot of Global Witness' website on a report, titled The Cost of Luxury. (screenshot from Global Witness)
Screenshot of Global Witness' website on a report, titled The Cost of Luxury. (screenshot from Global Witness)

Global Witness says Cambodia’s ongoing land crisis is part of a larger global trend, one driven by economics and resource shortages.

[Editor’s note: Researchers at the environmental watchdog Global Witness say Cambodia’s ongoing land crisis is part of a larger global trend, one driven by economics and resource shortages. With less stability in markets and investments, investors have gone looking for farmland in countries like Cambodia, where it is easy to strike a deal, says Josie Cohen, a campaigner who has researched land grabs in the Mekong Delta for Global Witness. She recently spoke with VOA Khmer to describe the phenomenon in Cambodia and in the global and regional context.]

Could you tell us your work background on land-grabbing?

I’ve worked on land-grabbing specifically for the last six years, but I’ve been at Global Witness for about three and half years, where I’ve been focusing specifically on the Mekong region, so looking at land-grabbing in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Could you tell us the changes in terms of land-grabbing over the last ten years in Asia?

Since 2008 actually, globally, but also specifically in the Asian region, there’s been a massive increase in land-grabbing in commercial companies looking for areas, large scale land areas, which often they’ve taken from local communities without compensation, without consulting land holders, and turning those areas into commercial plantations to grow crops, like rubber, sugar, cassava, corn, which then they grow on a large scale and often sell to the global market. We’ve also seen a move where logging companies are actually accessing large areas of land which they say is for agriculture, but actually is just an excuse to access valuable timber to log and to export to places like China and Vietnam.

Does this have some benefit for the states or the nations at all, or does it only bring disaster?

I mean the governments of the countries have certainly talked about it as a benefit. They’ve talked about development, infrastructure, roads, the fact that these commercial plantations provide jobs for local people, but actually it’s very hard to find examples where large-scale commercial plantations are benefiting the local population. What we’ve seen somewhere like Cambodia, but also in Myanmar and Laos, it’s actually companies come in, they rob local populations of the natural resources that they are relying on for their livelihood, and the jobs that they promise often don’t emerge. They also promise things like school and wealth and roads, which often those promises aren’t kept. They tend to not pay much tax to the states. So actually it’s hard to see cases where plantations are bringing the development benefits that they promise. And really what Global Witness has seen is actually it tends to be corrupt officials, whether it’s national or local level, that are striking deals with companies to give away this land, and actually it’s this very small group of cronies who are really benefitting from the land-grabbing, rather than the general population.

Could you tell us the risk that poses to lay people, for example farmers? For example Cambodia itself, most of the population live their lives dependent on agriculture.

As you say, I mean 75 percent of the Mekong region’s population relies on land for agriculture or non-timber forest products. For example, they would go to the forest and tap resin from the trees and use that to supplement their livelihood. So it’s very hard to overstate the impact of a company turning up one day with no notice at all and suddenly their livelihoods that they’ve rely upon for generations is bulldozed down, their forest is stolen. So there’s livelihood impacts, and people are just struggling to make a living and also then having to become agricultural labor. For example, a farmer who for generations has decided what he wants to do with his land and is a landowner will now go overnight to being an agricultural laborer, often where the conditions are very poor, where the pay is poor.

Sometimes the work is only seasonal, so it’s only in the harvest season, but also there’s a livelihood impact. There’s something about identity, so you see in all countries, but particularly in Cambodia, many indigenous communities particularly in the northeast of Cambodia, where their identity and their spirituality and their religion are very in touch with the land. So it’s much more than an economic benefit, and I think this is something that the government and the companies simply refuse to understand. I mean these people are losing a way of life that their people have followed for hundreds and hundreds of years, and their way of life, their language their clothes, are all under threat because of these land grabs.

Why do government and these powerful people refuse to understand this?

I mean there are powerful interests at play, and there’s big money involved. I think those interests get prioritized by the government and by a small number of cronies over the benefit of their own population. We are talking about countries with very high levels of corruption, with weak governance, so what you have is actually in Cambodia for example where the law is very good—you have an excellent land law in 2001, you have the sub-decree on economic land concessions in 2005—and these laws say that these communities have to be compensated, have to be brought development benefits. But these law are just completely ignored. And then you also have where the justice system or the courts are on the side of the powerful people, so it impossible for affected communities and for indigenous people to see justice. And in fact the courts are used against them. So I think there’s just too much money involved and powerful forces involved.

I want to go straight to Cambodia’s issue on that. Is it now at risk because of land-grabbing? What have you seen since you started working on Cambodia? What are the changes?

I started working on Cambodia, I suppose in 2011, so it’s been about four years. Land-grabbing was already a huge problem, and much of the country has already been allocated out to various cronies, which led to a situation in the run-up to the commune elections in 2012 and the general election in 2013, where Prime Minister Hun Sen really felt that he had to show he was doing something because more and more people were being displaced from their lands. They say there’s up to 700,000 Cambodian people who have been negatively affected by these land grabs. So what we’ve seen then was a whole series of supposed solutions from the prime minister and from the government. So first of all he calls the moratorium on economic land concessions and says no more land is going to be granted, when in reality a number of concessions have been granted since he called in a ban.

Then he sent student volunteers out into the countryside and started this land titling scheme, where they said they were going to issue up to a million land titles. But a again it was not done transparently, no monitoring was allowed by civil society organizations, and I know that many, many communities in Cambodia feel that the situation hasn’t been solved. You know in recent years what we have seen, Hun Sen has recently reduced the leases on lands, from some 99 years to 50 years, and we’ve also seen some land concessions canceled. So the Cambodia government is making some noise, to show that they are trying to resolve this situation. But actually, I would argue that none of these solutions would get to the root of the problem. And I know that human rights organizations in Cambodia and many affected communities feel the same. And actually the situation is getting worse, as more and more people are affected by these land grabs.

Have you seen any changes as to whether the government let it loose or held on tighter, in terms of giving land to private companies to do whatever they want?

There has been less allocation, because most of the land is already allocated, but there have been, in terms of companies for example who aren’t meeting the requirement of their contracts, we have not seen the government clamping down on those companies. You know, for example a company that Global Witness exposed in 2013, a state-owned Vietnamese company called the Vietnam Rubber Group, which held a hundred and 160,000 hectares in Cambodia, which is actually 16 times the legal limit because one company is supposed to hold 10,000 hectares. We exposed that and it’s been covered by the media, and it’s been covered by the affected communities, yet the companies were still allowed to hold that amount of land. It’s still getting into conflict with communities. Those conflicts aren’t being resolved. There are some cases where companies have said that they want to resolve the situation and the authorities are very much in the way, not allowing companies to speak directly to affected communities, so really making trouble for communities. So I would say that the situation is getting worse actually.

Have you seen or heard from the government regarding all your reports?

Global Witness has been working in Cambodia since 1995, so for the last 20 years, and now actually in the early years of working there, the response to the reports was sometimes positive. For example at one point we were actually invited in to become the government’s independent forest monitor, and it was Global Witness’ job to monitor Cambodia’s forest to make sure that people wouldn’t be illegally logging, but actually our relationship ended with the government when we launched the report called “Family Tree.” We exposed how the prime minister and some members of his family were getting rich from Cambodia’s forests. Since then the relationship with the government has not been good.

And the response to our reports hasn’t been positive. That’s true up until March this year when we launched “The Cost of Luxury,” again looking at illegal logging and actually the National Assembly formed a parliamentary commission. This is the first time there has been a decent response.

What do you see as the future of land issues in Cambodia in the next 10 years? Is there a solution?

“It’s very hard to say, since Cambodia in the last five years has been such a roller coaster at different events and land is such a key issue to the country. And as the government starts to prepare again for the commune elections in 2017 and then the general election, it’s hard to predict what the prime minister will do. But currently it doesn’t look like the solution is around the corner. What really needs to happen is the government needs to take land back from the companies and reallocate it to local communities and give them hard titles for that land, whether it’s private titles or communal titles, so this can’t happen to them in the future. I don’t see any sign that the Cambodian government is going to do that. But obviously it kind of depends on how political forces line up.

Is Cambodia the country that has the most serious problem or does it come along with other countries? Which country has the most serious problem of land-grabbing?

This is a huge problem and has been since 2008, in Africa, in Latin America, and in Southeast Asia as well.

Actually currently the country which is said to have the most land grabs is South Sudan in Africa. And then also African countries are just so huge compared to Cambodia that the amount of land being taken tends to be bigger. In terms of Southeast Asia, it’s a huge problem in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and also it’s even a big problem in China and in [Papua New Guinea]. I know in Indonesia, there has been a big problem. So it really is a picture of most developing countries now, because since the financial crisis in 2008 and also the world food crisis, they both hit at the same time, and the world started to realize that maybe financial products, stocks and shares, they are not something you can hold onto, and investors started looking for assets that they could invest in. And farmland is one of these assets, so they went out looking for countries where they could strike corrupt deals with governments and just get their hands on lots of land, and if you hold onto the land, the price of it goes up, and you’ll able to sell it on. So it’s a huge problem globally.”

Do you have more projects to work on in Cambodia or are you going to stop at some point?

Global Witness has no plans to stop working in Cambodia. We started in Cambodia, and we are very committed to hoping that the Cambodian people can benefit from their natural resources. Currently, in terms of our future plans, we are still working on a report that we put out in the last two years. So we’re still working with the Vietnamese company, the Vietnam Rubber Group and Hoang Anh Gia Lai to try and help the affected communities in Cambodia get some kind of compensation and remedy.