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PHNOM PENH, Apr 13 2010 (IPS) - When villagers in Kandal province near the Cambodian capital blocked National Road 2 in early April, it was just the latest protest by rural villagers angered by yet another alleged land grab.
They had blocked the road in a bid to raise awareness about the loss of hundreds of hectares of their land to a private developer, whose bulldozers had started clearing the land in late March.
Ten of the villagers were arrested, the latest in a seemingly unending string of land evictions that have engulfed this South-east Asian country in recent years.
The problem is likely to get even worse, critics say, because the government’s moves to allocate vast tracts of land to foreign and local companies are often done without consulting locals.
Another huge deal was touted earlier this year when Australia’s former finance minister, Peter Costello – also a paid adviser to the World Bank on transparency and good governance – announced a 600 million U.S. dollar investment in agriculture here.
This deal would be four times larger by value than any single agricultural investment in Cambodia.
The reason for the proposed investment by Costello’s client and others is simple enough: Rising food prices in 2008 alerted investors to the returns they can make from buying or leasing tracts of land in poor countries that have plenty of water and fertile land.
Cambodia certainly needs foreign investment and it needs the 150,000 jobs that Costello reportedly told Deputy Prime Minister Sok An would be created in the agriculture project.
“We have seen a spike in food prices in 2008, so I think agriculture is going to come back into its own as an investment in the decades that lie ahead and of course that’s a great opportunity for Cambodia,” Costello told the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ newspaper in an interview.
In recent years, Cambodia has done land deals with several countries. China, Vietnam, South Korea, Kuwait and Qatar have signed up to invest in agriculture – be that to grow food for export or crops such as rubber.
But critics say transparency is absent from the process. What has been agreed commercially in dozens of deals in every investment sector is regarded by Phnom Penh as confidential, despite the fact that the government is often selling or leasing public assets.
Son Chhay, an outspoken opposition MP and former head of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said that that in Parliament he was regularly prevented by his deputy, who was from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, from getting information on deals signed by the government with foreign nations.
Secrecy, said Son Chhay, has long been part of the often-murky process of investment here.
“It’s still the case that we are not able to get our hands (on investment documents) and that’s a cause for great concern,” he said. “A lot of concessions have caused problems to our farmers and indigenous people who have no knowledge of what is in the contracts.”
But he said Costello stressed the importance of transparency and the negative effects of corruption during his visit. “He should act upon his word. We would hope that this kind of investment from a society like Australia would be done in a proper manner,” Son Chhay said. “I would very much like that this BKK company provides the contract to the public so I can have a copy of that.”
Land in Cambodia is a complicated topic, not least because of the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s, when private property was abolished and land documents destroyed. In recent years around 1.1 million land title documents have been awarded, but that is less than 10 percent of the total land parcels, says the World Bank, which was involved in the scheme.
Combine a lack of title with the fact that around 80 percent of the 14 million Cambodians live in rural areas, and around 40 percent of them live under the poverty line, and the rising landlessness problem has many worried about social instability.
In 2007, the Cambodian office of the U.N. human rights body released a report on economic land concessions (ELCs). It noted that 59 concessions for nearly 950,000 hectares of rural land had been granted to private companies to develop agro-industrial plantations.
The true figure, it pointed out, is certainly higher since the statistics excluded smaller ELCs. The U.N. body said that the concessions had “adversely affected the human rights and livelihoods of Cambodia’s rural communities”.
Since that report’s release, the government’s investment approval arm, the Council for the Development of Cambodia, has signed off a further 33 projects worth 837 million dollars in the agro-industry sector – and that excludes the proposed Costello deal. Many of these are plantations.
The government recently passed controversial legislation that allows it to expropriate land for projects deemed to be in the public interest. Agricultural investments certainly fall into that category, as Prime Minister Hun Sen made clear earlier this year.
Speaking at the January unveiling of a new 100 million-dollar Thai sugar mill part-owned by a leading light in the ruling party, Hun Sen said that the extra workers and land needed to expand its sugar production would be found for Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar Industry company, which already has a 90-year concession for 20,000 hectares, since its operations were in the national interest.
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