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Proposed Agricultural Deal Carries Risk for Cambodia's Rural Poor

  • Robert Carmichael

Puth La, 62, an ethnic minority Suy woman, standing next to a digger that villagers say is being used by a Singaporean company to destroy thousands of hectares of land they claim as their own in the province of Kampong Speu, south-west of the capital Phno

Puth La, 62, an ethnic minority Suy woman, standing next to a digger that villagers say is being used by a Singaporean company to destroy thousands of hectares of land they claim as their own in the province of Kampong Speu, south-west of the capital Phno

An investment group out of Australia has unveiled a $600 million plan to create a massive farm project in Cambodia. However, human rights workers are concerned that this deal, and others like it, will do little to help Cambodia's rural poor. Robert Carmichael in Phnom Penh has more.

BKK Partners, an Australian financial advisory firm, has a client that wants to buy 100,000 hectares of Cambodian land on which to grow crops such as rice, bananas, sugar cane, palm oil and teak.

BKK managing director Peter Costello was in Cambodia recently to discuss the idea. The client for the deal is a company called Indochina Gateway Capital Limited, which has ties to BKK.

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper recorded an interview with Costello, a former Australian finance minister, in which he explained why investing in food is so tempting. "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," he said.

The investors say the project will create jobs in an impoverished country, and help improve farming methods for the undeveloped - yet vital - agriculture sector.

But human rights workers say previous farm-industry deals have worked against ordinary Cambodians because of corruption, poor governance and often-violent land evictions.

Poor farmers often are kicked off the land and because of Cambodia's inadequate land-ownership records, often receive no compensation. So they wind up with no farm, no home and no way to start over.

Three years ago the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh said at least 59 land concessions totaling almost 1 million hectares had been granted to private companies for agriculture projects. It said that impoverished rural residents generally have lost out in such deals.

Government figures show it has approved 33 more projects since the U.N. report was released.

That does not include land concession granted to other countries. Qatar, Kuwait and South Korea have been pursuing concession deals here.

Matthieu Pellerin works on land rights for Cambodia human rights organization Licadho. He says corruption means that not only are the poor unprotected, the investors themselves may be at risk.

"Well-established system of corruption; a lack of checks and balances to ensure that poor communities, indigenous communities are not victimized by any kind of major agro-industry deals where sizable pieces of land are sold to private companies; the collusion of all state actors from the village up to the national level. All of these factors just make it very, very, very difficult if not impossible to abide by the book. I think that if one wants to really abide by the book, Cambodia in 2010 is not the place to come," he said.

BKK Partners' Costello says the investors plan to give five percent of the cash generated by the land deal to social projects in Cambodia.

But Pellerin says that may not benefit the poor, unless there is adequate oversight to make sure the money goes to community needs and not politician's pockets.

Opposition politician Son Chhay says if the BKK deal is done properly, it could mark a welcome change from past agreements with Chinese and Vietnamese agriculture companies. He says they do not invest in the country's people.

However, Son Chhay says it can be difficult to get information about land agreements. Until 2008 he headed parliament's foreign affairs committee, and he says members of parliament are blocked from examining contracts on such deals. "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.

He says BKK must make the details of the deal public to ensure that rural poor do not lose out.

The issue of land seizures in Cambodia has drawn the attention of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights. Surya Subedi on a recent visit asked the government to suspend land evictions until it put in place proper legal safeguards. But the government refused, saying to do so would hold up development.

Subedi says a new law on government land seizures is too vague. "For example, what do we mean by public interest? If land can be acquired in the public interest, how do you define it? Who defines it?," said Subedi.

Opposition politicians and activists for the poor say the risk is that the government will simply seize any land it wants, and those farming the land will have no legal protection.

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