The 2015 Human Rights Report – Land Grabs in Cambodia: Brought to you by Western Consumers

By Adam McBeth

This article is featured in the 2015 Castan Centre Human Rights Report. We will be featuring the articles on the blog throughout the month of May. 

The story of what happened to Boeung Kak, a lake once crucial to Phnom Phen in preventing flooding from rivers during monsoon season, illustrates the problem of corruption and human rights abuses when land becomes valuable in developing countries.

Development in Boeung Kep

Boeung Kak housed several thousand families around its shore and in houses built over water. But by the mid-2000s land values were increasing and developers were on the lookout for big profits. A consortium, chaired by a senator from the ruling party and backed by Chinese investors, signed a 99-year lease with the government for the lake and the surrounding land. The plan was to fill in the lake and build a speculative residential and office development.

Human rights and forced evictions

International human rights law acknowledges that in some cases it might be necessary to require people to relocate against their will if a project will benefit the broader community and eviction cannot be avoided. However, when eviction occurs, international law specifies that affected communities must be protected. They must be consulted about the relocation and included in negotiations about appropriate compensation. They must also be left in a position no worse than their pre-eviction situation in terms of standard of housing and access to other essentials, such as water, electricity and nearby schools and health services, as well as their capacity to earn a living. Some form of retraining or income replacement may also be needed to ensure that their livelihood is protected beyond the short term.

All too often in developing countries, people who exercise their right to protest peacefully against these developments are accused of criminal behaviour, harassed, arrested and ultimately imprisoned for these alleged crimes, potentially violating the right to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention.

Cambodia’s land grab problem

Cambodia has seen an explosion in land grabs in recent years. Powerful business people, usually well connected politically, are hungry for agricultural land, particularly to grow cash crops such as sugar and rubber for export, and for speculative urban developments amid steeply rising property prices. To satisfy this hunger, the developers must remove the inhabitants of the targeted land.

In a typical land grab, as happened in Boeung Kak, the legal status of the land is manipulated by the authorities to make it easier to force people out. However, even if the inhabitants are not the legal owners, international human rights law requires protection from forced evictions that would deprive them of their home and other human rights. Despite this, the people of Boeung Kak who refused to move without adequate compensation were subjected to violence and intimidation. Their houses were deliberately flooded by construction workers. Protesters were convicted on charges such as obstructing traffic and resisting arrest in highly dubious trials, resulting in prison terms of up to a year.

Variations of this story are occurring throughout Cambodia. In one case, a developer obtained a lease over land previously classified as national park to build a casino, resort and condominium development, requiring involuntary resettlement of 1200 families. Land has been grabbed for rubber plantations by Vietnamese consortiums, and for sugar plantations by a Thai-controlled company. Local communities have faced violence and intimidation and had their houses bulldozed, burned or flooded. Many resettled people have struggled for livelihood at their new locations. People have been arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

Contribution of western countries

In many cases, developed countries have played a significant role. The expansion of agribusiness has been encouraged and in some cases financed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Sometimes, finance comes from private sources, such as Australia’s ANZ Bank. In the case of sugar, land grabs have been fuelled by the demand of soft drink and confectionery companies, including Coca-Cola, facilitated by European Union trade rules giving preferential treatment to imports from least-developed countries, intended as a measure to assist the world’s poor.

While the complicity of Western companies and institutions in these abuses raises questions about their accountability for human rights violations, it also presents opportunities for activism. NGOs such as Equitable Cambodia, Oxfam and Inclusive Development International have effectively used the involvement of these companies and institutions as leverage, advocating for the customers and financiers of the land grabbers to conduct closer checks of their business to ensure that human rights are being protected, to refrain from doing business with those who abuse human rights, and to use their position to urge their business partners to adopt better practices. While there have been some great successes in that advocacy, there is an awfully long way to go in protecting human rights in Cambodian land grabs.

Adam McBeth is part of a research project funded by the Oxfam-Monash University Partnership looking at community approaches to accountability in Cambodia.

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