Agricultural Land Law Threatens to Destroy Private Property Rights and Eliminate All Limitations on Economic Land Concessions

Joint Organizations

July 23, 2012 - The Cambodian government has quietly released a draft agricultural land law could be used as legal cover for land-grabbing and natural resource exploitation.

As increasing violence and human rights abuses related to land conflicts throughout the country continue to race towards a crisis point, the introduction of this draft law could not come at a worse time. The law - officially titled the Law on the Management and Use of Agricultural Land - would have grave implications for private landholders, taking away their ability to make fundamental land use decisions on their own property under threat of criminal prosecution.

"The draft law appears to create a list of new crimes to threaten small farmers with, ," said Chea Sopheak, of the Farmer & Nature Network (FNN). "Such interference with private property ownership rights is unjustifiable."

The draft law provides for a sentence of up to one year in prison for any violation of the law itself, of any sub-decrees issued under the law, or even of any orders issued by the General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA), a body under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). Given the incomprehensibly vague nature of several obligations established under the law, such criminal liability is inappropriate and susceptible to substantial abuse.

The draft law, for example, provides for the government-led creation of loosely defined "Agricultural Development Areas" (ADAs) consisting of an unlimited number of privately owned plots, of any size. ADAs are established upon agreement by an undefined majority of affected landholders. Once established, private landowners within the zone must implement mandatory development plans regardless of whether they agreed to join in the first place. They face the threat of jail time if they refuse. There are no provisions that allow for the termination or expiration of an ADA, or for private landholders to opt out.

The draft law also requires that all private landholders take action to prevent or reverse "soil loss or deterioration." If such actions are not taken to the satisfaction of government officials, the law provides MAFF with a litany of powers. A MAFF order under the draft law can, for example, dictate the destruction of crops without compensation, or can provide for entirely unfettered MAFF "control" over the offending land. Neither "soil loss or deterioration," nor the actions that could be required to prevent or remedy it, are defined or limited to reasonable burden or cost.

"We have the right to choose what we produce on our own land,"Prach Bunthoeun, of the Farmer Association for Peace Development (FAPD) commented. "If this draft law is passed, farmers could face large obstacles in deciding what they can grow. We request that the government guarantee our rights to choose our activites on our own land."

Perhaps most disturbing, the currently released draft law creates an entirely new "agricultural land lease" scheme which implicitly overwrites limitations and protections currently required of Economic Land Concessions under the 2001 Land Law and subsequent sub-decrees. There are, for example, no size or duration limits, environmental impact assessments, or prior consultation or consent requirements related to such leases in this draft law.

Numerous other provisions in the draft law are cause for serious concern. It establishes a scheme requiring "land conversion permits" for all manner of land use changes on private property - regardless of size or impact. It also includes troublesome provisions related to contract farming. In the event of any conflict between a farmer and the purchaser, for example, the purchaser expressly prevails - he or she is entitled to insist on a specific quantity, price, and several other key potential contract terms. And finally, the law allows the government unfettered discretion in seizing inhabited land to create "agricultural bio-diversity conservation areas."

"This draft law poses a serious threat to private property ownership rights - particularly for smallholder farmers," said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. "As land disputes throughout Cambodia continue to grow in intensity and frequency, a law related to land management and ownership rights must be drafted with transparency and extensive consultations, neither of which have occurred here. This draft law must go back to the drawing board."

"The government says that its overall policy is poverty reduction, but this draft law could hurt our basic rights to use and manage our own land," said Theng Savoeun, of the Coalition of Cambodia Farmers Community (CCFC). "How will that help us reduce poverty?"

For more information, please contact:
 Ms. Pilorge Naly, LICADHO Director, 012-803-650
 Mr. Chea Sopheak, Farmer & Nature Network (FNN), 016-440-495
 Mr. Prach Bunthoeun, Farmer Association for Peace Development (FAPD), 016-651-413

PDF format: Download full statement in English - Download full statement in Khmer