Phnom Penh: Cambodia has returned land taken a decade ago from indigenous communities for a Vietnamese company’s rubber plantation, a sign that foreign investors are facing greater scrutiny over rights violations, analysts said.
The governor of the northeastern province of Ratanakari on Tuesday asked the agriculture ministry to take out 64 areas from the land concessions, including forests, wetlands and burial grounds that belonged to a dozen indigenous communities.
The decision “represents an unprecedented recognition of indigenous land rights over business interests in Cambodia”, said Dam Chanty, executive director of the Highlanders Association, an indigenous rights organisation in Ratanakari.
But while the move was “a major victory”, the communities still needed compensation and help rehabilitating their land and waterways, she said in a statement.
Since the early 2000s, Cambodia has awarded large swathes of land as concessions to foreign companies for mines, power plants and farms, to spur economic growth and alleviate poverty.
Such deals, which covered more than a tenth of the country’s surface area by 2012, have displaced more than 770,000 people, human rights lawyers say.
After pressure from rights groups, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a moratorium on new concessions in 2012, and promised to review old ones.
But land rights activists say the reviews did not lead to significant changes.
Ten years ago, the government gave about 19,000ha of land belonging to 12 indigenous villages to Vietnamese rubber growers Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL).
The indigenous communities filed a complaint in 2014 over “serious” environmental and social effects with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which had invested in a fund that financed HAGL’s ventures in Cambodia and Laos.
A dispute resolution process was set up, and HAGL agreed to stop further land clearances.
A year later, HAGL agreed to return land that was not planted or cleared, and its concessions were reduced by more than 60%. — Reuters
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