The entirety of three protected forests are now classified as private land, an investigation from rights group Adhoc has found, along with tens of thousands of additional hectares of what has once been state public land.
In total, an area slightly smaller than the size of Jakarta has been reclassified since the beginning of this year.
In three cases, Adhoc’s findings show that entire protected forests – Snoul Wildlife Santuary, Preah Vihear Protected Area and Peam Krasob Wildlife Sanctuary – have now been reclassified.
Reclassifying land is the penultimate step before granting economic land concessions to companies; once completed, it is generally considered a near-certainty that a firm will be granted the ELC.
On May 7, Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a moratorium on granting new ELCs amidst a furore over forced evictions and environmental destruction.
The ban contained what rights groups have termed a loophole that allows the go-ahead for ELCs already in the pipeline at the time of the ban.
Adhoc’s findings, compiled by investigator Chan Soveth, who in August was charged with the vague offence of “assisting specific perpetrators”, show 253,506 hectares were reclassified through October.
“How does the government choose the right way if he announces to stop granting [land] as economic land concessions but still there is one point to allow the company receive it,” Soveth said.
Soveth said his findings were based on official government documents which show that 156,618 hectares had been reclassified as private land in protected forests this year, while 12 ELCs covering 132,887 hectares had been granted since the moratorium.
Full ELCs had been granted to 32 private companies totalling 210,907 hectares in 2012, Soveth said.
He called on the government, which has never clearly explained exactly how far along the path of negotiation an ELC had to be to receive an exemption from the moratorium or how many such deals were under consideration, to clarify the details.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said he had not seen the Adhoc report and directed questions to the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and Ministry of Agriculture.
Officials at those ministries either declined to comment or could not be reached and Leang Se, deputy chief of the prime minister’s cabinet, had his phone switched off yesterday.
Last month, Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun told the Post he also was not sure how many more ELCs could still be granted under the moratorium.
In June, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a sweeping national land-titling program to measure about 1.2 million hectares for some 350,000 families in a period of six to eight months.
He has previously angrily reacted to accusations that ELCs continue to be awarded despite the moratorium, pointing to point four of his order that provides the exemption to the ban.
Mathieu Pellerin, a technical consultant with the rights group Licadho and expert on land concessions, said yesterday he could not immediately confirm the figures provided by Soveth but that they sounded about on the mark.
“This once again highlights the need for a meaningful moratorium, for works surrounding ELC granting to be stopped until a meaningful moratorium with the removal of the loophole…and a systematic review of all the ELCs in the protected areas takes place,” he said.
Adhoc found that of Cambodia’s 23 protected areas totalling 3,402,200 hectares, more than 10 per cent had now been reclassified as state private land to companies or granted as ELCs.
Sarah Milne, a research fellow at the Australian National University with extensive conservation experience in Cambodia, said such vast grabbing of protected land had massive impacts on human rights and the environment as well.
“It’s a clear evidence of a predatory state, and really blatant processes of accumulation by dispossessions, because people live in protected areas, and although it is classified as state land, it’s not for the state to privatize and commodify without consultation and due process,” she said.
“Of course, there is the narrative of Cambodia having to develop, but it’s the question of development for whom and at what cost. This is about the accrual of wealth by elites and foreign private interests.”