Land concessions in Cambodia

1 Oct

The Cambodian government has handed out hundreds of thousands of hectares for industrial tree plantations. The results have been disastrous for the forests, local people and for workers employed by the plantation companies.

By Chris Lang. Published in Pulping the Mekong, October 2003.

Although not directly related to the pulp and paper industry, large-scale land concessions for plantations such as oil palm, rubber, teak, coffee or cashew nuts, present similar problems for local communities in Cambodia.

Throughout Cambodia, villagers depend on farmland, fisheries and forests for their livelihoods. Before the government suspended all logging operations in January 2002, logging concessions caused massive damage to the forests and reduced villagers’ access and rights to forests. The land concessions granted by the government, in some cases to the same companies that held logging concessions, may amount to little more than a means to allow logging to continue.

In September 2002, the Cambodian Government adopted a new Forestry Law, which requires that forest concessionaires have to prepare and make public 25 year forest management plans. The plans are supposed to indicate how forests are to be managed sustainably and in a socially and environmentally acceptable manner.

On 11 November 2002, the Department of Forestry and Wildlife released management plans, but with only 19 days for comments. World Bank consultants estimated that at least six months was necessary. When community representatives asked DFW officials for copies of the management plans, they were referred to the World Bank. The Bank shut its gates, claiming that it did not have sufficient funds to make photocopies.

Jon Buckrell, of UK-based NGO Global Witness, commented, “The implementation of these plans will directly affect millions of Cambodia’s poorest people yet the Bank only ensured a handful of copies were made available. I hope the irony, that Bank staff were conducting a ‘poverty reduction workshop’ whilst villagers outside were begging for the plans, will not be lost on their superiors in Washington.”

On 5 December 2002, approximately 150 representatives of waited outside the DFW in Phnom Penh to find out whether DFW staff would take part in a workshop about the forest management plans. Instead of responding to the villagers’ invitation, DFW sent in police. Police blocked the road with trucks and descended on the villagers, kicking and using electro-shock batons on several people. Eleven villagers were later treated for injuries. Hem Sao, a 29-year-old village chief, died a few hours later. Peter Leuprecht, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, condemned the use of violence and commented, “While the cause of death has not been established, it is well known that electro-shock batons have the potential to cause death from loss of coordination of the heart muscle’s contractions.”

Humans Rights Watch reported that in the weeks following the violence on 5 December, forestry officials held meetings during which villagers were pressured to thumbprint documents they could not read, expressing support for logging concessions.

In a December 2002 report, UN Special Representative Peter Leuprecht expressed his concern about land concessions in Cambodia:

    “The Royal Government has pursued a policy of granting large-scale land, forestry and other types of concessions to private companies. The experience thus far has shown that this represents a serious threat to the well-being of those living on such territory and has also contributed to the problem of access to land for the general population.”

So far the government has done little to attempt to limit the problems associated with these concessions. Instead government officials deny that the problems exist.

In August 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen travelled to Tumring in Kompong Thom province for the launch of a 6,200 hectare rubber plantation. In his speech, Hun Sen praised the Chhub Rubber Plantation Company for “rehabilitating the ecological balance of the region, which was degraded to some extent by logging”.

Two years later, the company was caught logging more than 500 metres outside the concession area. Among the trees cut were resin trees, one of the major sources of revenue for local people. Resin trees were also cut in the Tum Ar Spirit Forest. Villagers believe that people are becoming ill and even dying because of the logging in the spirit forest.

Forestry Department Director Ty Sokhun denied that there was anything illegal going on. “There is no log exploitation business,” he told the Cambodia Daily. Instead he put the blame on local people. “Some people use wood as firewood. There could be some clearing for farms”, he said.

In Horn is the vice chief of the Chhub Rubber Plantation Company’s operations at Tumring. He told the Cambodia Daily that the size of the plantation project makes it difficult for him to keep track of everything that is happening there. He claimed not to know anything about the logging taking place outside the plantation area, but added, “On the other hand, I’m not supposed to know too much.”

In January 2000, the government awarded a concession to the Pheapimex Group, one of the largest and most destructive logging companies in Cambodia. The 300,000 hectares concession, in Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces, is the first large-scale tree plantation in the country. At 300,000 hectares, it is vast. For comparison, in Brazil Veracel recently started building the world’s largest single-line bleached eucalyptus pulp mill: 900,000 tons a year. The company anticipates that its 69,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations will be sufficient to provide raw material for the mill.

In December 2000, Pheapimex signed a joint venture agreement with the Chinese Farm Cooperation Group to build a pulp and paper mill. The $70 million joint venture is to be financed with a loan to the Cambodian government from the Import-Export Bank of China. The loan forms part of a deal between the Chinese and Cambodian governments to boost trade and investment between the two countries. Under the terms of the loan, Pheapimex and the Chinese Farm Cooperation Group will pay five per cent interest to the Cambodian government. The government will in turn pay three per cent interest to the Chinese Import-Export Bank.

Details about the proposed location of the pulp mill are vague.

Pheapimex’s concession includes all the available forest land in the area. The concession area is bordered on two sides by protected areas and may even encroach into the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.

So far, Pheapimex has started planting only a small area with eucalyptus trees. Forests inside the concession area are already being degraded. Businessman are paying for young trees to be cut, to be used by fishing lot owners as poles in constructing barrages to block rivers and to catch fish. Local officials are turning a blind eye to the damage this is causing to villagers’ community forests, and even encouraging it, possibly in an attempt to reduce local communities’ opposition to the Pheapimex concession. If villagers have already lost their community forests, they are less likely to oppose the planting of large tracts of land with eucalyptus plantations.

Villagers, however, are concerned that their forests are coming under threat. For example, villagers in Ansa Chombok commune in Pursat province are trying to protect their 6,800 hectare community forest. They have travelled to Phnom Penh and have organised meetings with government officials to try to persuade the government to halt the planned plantation.

UN Special Representative, Peter Leuprecht, wrote in his December 2002 report that he is “deeply concerned that this and other agricultural land concessions constitute a direct threat to tens of thousands of people who are dependant on the land in question to secure their basic livelihood.”

Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law stipulates “Land concessions shall not be more than 10,000 hectares. Existing concessions which exceed such limit shall be reduced.” The procedure granting land concessions and for reducing the area of land concessions is to be determined by sub-decrees. The government has still not prepared these two sub-decrees.

Leuprecht recommended in his report that the government should carry out a review of land concession contracts and should “consider using its legal right to revoke contracts where the provisions of Cambodian law and the requirements of the contracts themselves have been violated.”

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