From Khmer Times

Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and most are involved in agriculture. In the 21st century, agriculture remains fundamental to economic growth, poverty alleviation, and environmental sustainability.

According to the World Bank, interest in farmland is rising. And, given commodity price volatility, growing human and environmental pressures, and worries about food security, this interest will increase, especially in the developing world.

Many countries have suitable land available that is either not cultivated or produces well below its potential. This was a development challenge even before the food price rise of 2008.

The need for more and better investment in agriculture to reduce poverty, increase economic growth, and promote environmental sustainability was already clear when there were “only” 830 million hungry people before the food price rise.

The case is even clearer today when, for the first time in human history, over a billion people go to bed hungry each night.

What is the correlation between this and Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) in Cambodia, labeled as the scourge of the nation by the not so ignorant non-governmental organizations and opposition as well as some policy makers.

There are three kinds of ELC holders. The first is the one which cost a lot of negative perception as rights violations, land-grabbing , securing the ELCs for re sale at a premium, cutting trees to sell them as logs with very little or no interest at all in developing the land, even after a decade.

In Kampot, there are two such concessions and many elsewhere, especially those granted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The second category involves those who apply for ELCs with no intention of developing them but flipping them back to back to potential investors or even brokers for a marginal profit. Those in this category do not carry out any development at all except giving out contracts to cut trees and earn revenue while waiting for buyers or potential investors for a joint venture which are provided for in the ELC agreement.

The third is the group, which is much maligned and suffers largely in silence. These are the ones who develop the land from the day the principle approval is granted and adhere to the best of their ability, to the Master Plan and Concession agreement.

They are also the ones who suffer the indignity of having to face off with villagers who were not even in existence when the concession was granted, before infrastructure was developed and before the concession started work.

This writer represents one such concession, which has come into criticism by competing media on questions of ethics, conflict of interest and so on.

Hefty Investment

My concession, totaling 6718 ha of which about 500 ha was carved out for villagers and reserves, is being developed and planted with oil palm. Approximately 1,300 hectares has already been developed and some 600 hectares are fruiting. Land-clearing permits were granted for, 1,250 ha and on October 7, a further 2,000 ha was granted to be cleared for planting.

I label it as “My Concession” as I am the appointed representative of the stake holders.

To date, the ELC has planted approximately 200,000 oil palm seedlings which cost a dollar to import as germinated seeds and a year-and-a-half of painstaking nurturing at nurseries before they can be transplanted to the ground.

There are another 150,000 seedlings waiting in the nursery to be transplanted in the fields commencing April 2016 and to be completed by November 2016.

On the average, the company spends approximately $3 million a year to develop the land.

It created employment for approximately 300 people who had no other source of job opportunities prior to 2011, a system of infrastructure, a micro-economy and probably the only ELC holder in Kampot to actually work on the land.

Yet, there are those who storm in under various guises, advisors to high-ranking people (supposedly), local authorities who fuel land-grabbing, opportunistic professional land-grabbers with influence, who until today, try to grab land which has been clearly marked out for the concession after six months of painstaking boundary markings and trenches and avoiding disputes.

Even after disputes were settled willingly with many who had no rights in the first place, some greedy souls came back to try a second round of grabbing with the hope of getting more compensation.

Local authorities are of little help, the courts are of little help, and there is practically very little assistance from the concerned authorities to resolve the issue, other than the ubiquitous reports and more reports but no action at all.
To add salt to the wounds and pain suffered by the ELC, irresponsible nongovernmental organizations enter into the concessions with equally unethical reporters who travel under the guise of aid or rights workers to sensationalize an issue which does not exist in the first place.

At no time do they attempt to seek answers from the local authorities who can give them the facts, the ELC holder who will also willingly share the facts but they chose to do it covertly or seek responses to pointed questions after the fact.

Sensationalism and the plight of the villagers is all that matters. But what are the facts and what is fiction?

Facts are: from less than 50 households before the ELC was granted, it jumped to 100 households when the student group was deployed. It increased further to 125 when the boundary marking exercise by the Kampot land officials started in 2013 and to almost 200 when trenching started in March this year.

Forests were hastily burned, mango trees, jackfruit trees and banana shoots were transplanted in the dead of the night to try to show that villagers a long time ago had cultivated the land, when the smoke and ambers are still smoldering.

Checking the Facts?

Some even threatened and still try to grab 50 percent of the concession granted in 2011, or 3,600 ha – part of which has already been cleared and planted and complete with infrastructure such as roads and concrete bridges.

How is that the number of landless and land disputes keep increasing when many have been granted land titles or had land marked out and set aside for them throughout the country?

How is that LICADHO, Adhoc and others claim land disputes are on the rise when land titles were issued by the thousands?

Did they do a thorough investigation on the alleged victims? Are they aware that among these numbers, there are many who have received compensation and came back to claim even more land? Are they aware that land-grabbing is a business for these people, many of whom have no shelter, let alone a house in the land they have grabbed and which is largely forest? Are they aware that many who alleged being victims of land-grabbing had sold their land to others, including ELCs only to move to another area to grab with the hope of repeating the compensation process?

Are they aware that a sizeable number of these claims are fake with fake petitions and thumbprints by people who don’t even know what they are affixing their thumbprints for?

To top it all, policies keep changing. From 70, 80 or 90 years, it has been unilaterally reduced to 50 years. Where is the government’s pledge to honor contracts when the concession holder honors theirs?

Revocation of non-active ELCs a good and welcome measure but changing investment contracts midway to gain political mileage or votes is a negative action which sends the wrong message to investors in agriculture in this case and all investors in general.

This is because, to investors, the contracts they sign with the ruling government of the day has to be honored by virtue of the Royal Government being a signatory to MIGA.

Thus, in this case, where is the sanctity of the contracts affecting those concessions which toil to develop?

The “Certificate of Land Lease, which the ministries so proudly say is a bankable document is an elusive document to obtain as provincial authorities, ministries and land ministry officials are unclear of the process.

Banks in Cambodia, when approached for possible financing with the Certificate of Land Lease possibly as collateral, just shrug their shoulders and say no as they are not certain of the government’s policies on ELC’s and are even more apprehensive on the laws concerned as they fear the ELC period could be further reduced or even revoked without warning.

So, where is the protection for the genuine investors who have invested millions and continue to invest millions for up to seven years before seeing any possibility of revenue, not returns on investment but just revenue to assist with operating expense?

None I suppose. Why? Because nongovernmental organizations, land activists and incompetent local authorities only fuel more land disputes rather than finding out the facts on the ground and doing thorough research.

Thus, the Cambodian dream of being the food basket for ASEAN and Asia will wither because politics and sensationalism has over-ridden realities on the ground.

Keywords: Economic Land Concessions, ELCs, farming, food security, agriculture, Cambodia