Government Dismisses Concerns as Farmers Boycott Land Law Meeting

A group representing 2,000 farming families from 15 provinces boycotted a workshop on Monday on the final draft of the Agricultural Land Law after the Agriculture Ministry rejected their concerns and pushed to finish public consultation on the law.

“The law gives more power to companies and investors,” said Roth Chansophearet of the Cambodian Grassroots Cross-Sector Network, an NGO which works with the families. “It violates the right to land of farmers. They cannot manage or control their own land.”

An analysis conducted by the NGO and submitted to the ministry late last month concluded that the new law was unnecessary, threatened to violate basic ownership rights and permitted the government to hand out more land concessions to private companies.

The draft law, discussed by the NGO Forum and a number of civil society groups on Monday, is vaguely framed and currently appears to allow the ministry to repurpose or take any land in Cambodia—protected forest and private holdings included, said Sek Sophorn, an attorney with the Rights & Business Law Office, who attended the workshop.

Among other things, the law specifies a process by which so-called “agricultural land” will be evaluated by the government for soil quality and other attributes. This evaluation will be used to create an “agricultural land use map” to determine how the land may be planted or otherwise used, with an eye to maximizing productivity.

Keo Sophy, 51, a rice farmer in Siem Reap province, said during a break in Monday’s workshop on the law that the government planned to create “agricultural communities” that would control which crops farmers within each community plant, following government directives designed to optimize land use.

“If they check and find that a plot of land is suitable for paddy, we must follow them,” he said. If he wanted to grow something else, he added, “it would make us lose our land. And if we don’t grow anything, we need to lease our land to others. Otherwise, our land could be seized.”

The sixth draft of the law says the farming communities will enforce what landowners are permitted to plant, with hefty fines levied against those who don’t comply.

What is unclear is what exactly counts as “agricultural land” and what choice farmers will have in joining these communities, said Mr. Sophorn, the lawyer.

“It affects every person who owns agricultural land in Cambodia,” he said. “In some provisions of the law, it seems it’s not an obligation to register…. But there are provisions for the government to actively identify any land in Cambodia” as agricultural land.

Minister of Agriculture Veng Sokhon said the concerns were unwarranted and defended the speedy consultation process.

The law “is very useful and we need to push it quickly,” he said, dismissing concerns about protected land and private holdings, saying that registering private land was optional and protected land would stay protected.

“It seems that NGOs and civil society work unclearly,” he said. “They explain things to farmers rather than working on regulation of the land.”

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