Economic land concessions (ELCs) are supposed to be transforming Cambodian agriculture into a heavyweight industry and raising the living standards of millions of rural Cambodians, according to government policy documents.
But, in an academic paper published last month, Arnim Scheidel, a PhD in ecological economics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, argued that poverty reduction is merely a cover for what he terms “land capture”.
Cambodia’s “poverty crisis” – the World Bank estimated 3 million Cambodians were living below the poverty line in 2012 – has been taken as a tool to legitimise land capture, Scheidel wrote, with “the proposed solution [to the crisis] . . . clearly biased towards the establishment of capital-intensive large-scale agribusinesses”.
ELCs are billed as transforming rural subsistence farmers into paid plantation employees, according to Scheidel, who terms this a “strategic depiction” that “dismisses that more than half a million self-employed farmers have lost land, livelihoods and environmental incomes” to concessions.
“From the perspective of agro-investors, who in Cambodia are strongly tied to ruling party elites, there are also strategic reasons to define poverty as issues of employment and monetary income,” he wrote, arguing that these definitions “[favour] large agro-projects with formal jobs and incomes over small-scale peasant ways of life.”
Eang Vuthy, executive director of land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia (EC), said part of the problem is that inhabitants have no choice but to work on the ELC. Beyond that, he said, the work is often irregular, poorly paid and conducted under poor conditions.
Scheidel cites the example of CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat-owned Phnom Penh and Kampong Speu Sugar Companies, whose combined ELCs he estimates dispossessed 7,000 people of their land in return for employment characterised by “child labour and [harsh] working conditions”.
In early 2015, the government revoked the licences of 23 ELCs when Environment Minister Say Sam Al decreed they had failed to honour their obligation to develop the land.
Scheidel took this as evidence of a “systematic overestimation” of the benefits ELCs will bring to the area surrounding them.
“In such cases, the promised benefits remain largely of rhetoric and fictitious in nature, whereas the impacts on the ground are real, affecting local people and the environment,” he wrote.
On the flipside, Scheidel argued companies deliberately understate the negative impacts their projects will have. When impact assessments are conducted on proposed ELCs, their results are often fudged or never released, he wrote.
The result of these tactics, he concluded, is that the poor inhabitants of ELCs are turned into rhetorical devices to justify land grabbing, who ultimately “become cheap labour for those projects that dispossessed them from their lands”.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said the report was attacking an issue that had long been resolved.
“The government has settled this issue for three years. We implemented to shut down all operations [ELCs] that didn’t do what they agreed to with the government,” Siphan said. “No more ELCs [have been granted] for about three years.”