Forest Conversion for Commercial Agriculture and Associated Exports
In Cambodia, a 2011 government report acknowledged that the main reason for the dramatic decline in forest cover was the conversion of forestland to large-scale agricultural plantations under controversial Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) (Government of Cambodia 2011). By the end of 2012, 2.6 Mha of land had been handed out. Of the proportion of this area for which information is available (1.5 Mha), official government data show that 1.2 Mha (80 per cent) is slated for rubber plantations (Vannarin and Lewis 2013).
Illegalities in Conversion
The available evidence—including UN reports and government statements, as well as press and NGO reports— demonstrates that most, if not all, of the deforestation taking place in Cambodia under ELCs is illegal in some way. Though the regulatory framework is confusing and conflicting, existing laws make clear that areas of intact forest are not permitted to be converted, yet the government has issued ELCs covering 2.6 Mha (Global Witness 2013b), including most of the country’s remaining forest estate. Numerous laws and regulations are alleged to have been breached in the issuance of these concessions.
Many concessions have even been issued that encompass national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, including 70 per cent of the concessions given out during 2012 (ibid.). Many ELCs cover a total area far in excess of the maximum 10,000 ha per company defined in regulations. Comparing the list of ELCs with over 10,000 ha with the overall area allocated to ELCs suggests that between 35 and 50 per cent of all ELCs allocated are above the maximum. ELCs have also been issued on officially declared community forest areas, and without legally required public consultations (Subedi 2012).
Of the 117 concessions listed on a government website in 2012, only three were recorded as having conducted the Social and Environmental Impact Assessments required before an ELC is allocated, and all of these were carried out after the concession was issued (ibid.). The Cambodian Ministry of Environment has publicly stated that only about five per cent of major development projects (including ELCs and others) between 2004 and 2011 had conducted the required Environmental Impact Assessments (Lewis and Narim 2012).
Illegalities during clearance and development are also common. Many concessionaires have commenced activity before the signing of contracts. A number of concessions have blocked paths, roads, and streams used by villagers in contravention of regulations, and companies have also been allowed to retain concessions despite failing to begin developing them within the maximum permitted period (Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia 2007).
Newspaper reports and NGO investigations regularly cite instances of companies logging outside their concession boundaries. Companies have also felled protected rosewood and resin trees, and there have been violent responses to the many protests by local communities against illegal agro-conversion. One of the largest companies involved in developing rubber plantations on ELCs in Cambodia has publicly admitted in official filings that some of its projects are illegal.
Since 2002 at least 700,000 Cambodians have been negatively impacted by ELCs and crimes associated with their establishment. A 2014 submission to the International Criminal Court made the case that these offences – including murder, arbitrary detention and persecution of individuals legitimately opposing the system – amount to a crime against humanity and therefore fall within the jurisdiction of the court. In September 2016 the Court’s prosecutor agreed to add the investigation of crimes that result in the illegal dispossession of land, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the environment to its list of priorities.
CASE STUDY: Hoang Anh Gai Lai (HAGL) Rubber Plantation
An investigation by the Global Witness, published in May 2013 (Global Witness 2013b), provides evidence of a range of illegalities relating to ELCs issued to the Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gai Lai (HAGL) in Cambodia. The report notes that the company has been issued with ELCs covering almost 50,000 ha, five times the maximum allowed under Cambodian law to be issued to one company. In addition, official documents show that 28,000 ha of these concessions were issued for areas of forest inside a Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, in contravention of legislation.
Global Witness was also unable to find any evidence of the company having conducted Environmental Impact Assessments for any of its ELCs, as required. It also found that the company had illegally cleared intact forest (in breach of its concession contract), and harvested rosewood and other protected timber species. The company had also “overlooked legal requirements for consultations with local people” affected by its concessions.
Incredibly, the company admitted to operating illegally in an official public filing relating to a market listing. Its submission stated that “certain of our existing projects are being developed without necessary government approvals [sic]” and that “operation of certain projects are not fully in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.” Villagers protesting the activities of the company on their land had been fired at with live rounds by military police, according to eyewitnesses. HAGL denied the Global Witness allegations and claimed that the public admission of illegality was due to a translation error.
In June 2013, shortly after the Global Witness report was published, HAGL committed to implement a four month freeze on all clearing and planting on its concessions, and to discuss with and address the issues faced by local people. However, subsequent investigations in July and August 2013 by Global Witness showed that HAGL had failed to abide by its promises (Global Witness 2013c). In April 2014 HAGL again declared that it had suspended forest clearing at three of its seven rubber plantations in Cambodia, this time following a request from the IFC (Peter and Pheap 2014). The IFC, which has been helping fund the developments, took action in response to a formal complaint filed by local communities alleging that HAGL had breached IFC lending safeguards, including (among other things) by breaking Cambodian laws. The IFC has since begun a dispute resolution process between the company and the local community (Compliance Advisor Ombudsman 2014).
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia. 2007. “Economic Land Concessions in Cambodia: A Human Rights Perspective.” UN Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Phnom Penh.
Subedi, Surya P. 2012. Addendum: A Human Rights Analysis of Economic and Other Land Concessions in Cambodia. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. UN General Assembly, October 11.
This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on Cambodia here.