More than 930,000 hectares of state public land inside protected conservation areas are now eligible for privatization, according to a November 30 sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
People in protected areas across 15 provinces are now able to receive recognition for land claims as identified by provincial officials and overseen by the Ministry of Environment (MoE), according to the sub-decree and a June order from the Council of Ministers.
Sub-decree 245, on the surface, will provide communities and individuals with long-standing presence inside designated conservation sites known as protected areas the opportunity to secure legal land use rights and land titles.
Yet conservationists fear the still opaque sub-decree will be abused, allowing government officials to legalize existing land grabs in these areas and launder land giveaways to the rich, powerful and well-connected.
“Even if some local communities do end up having titles for their lands, which on paper should be a good thing, the fact is that a substantial percentage of these communities will end up being pressured or fooled into selling their land,” said Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of environmental activist group Mother Nature.
More than 40 percent of Cambodia’s land mass — 7.5 million hectares — had become classified as one of 53 protected areas by 2017, according to a report from NGO Client Earth. Many of these areas are “protected” in name only and have already suffered rampant deforestation from large-scale illegal logging operations or have been occupied by established villages for decades, such as in the case of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.
The new sub-decree will convey further power to the MoE, which will be able to repossess unused lands previously allocated for development projects in protected areas. The MoE will establish a new commission, including the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Interior, to define locations in protected areas for military bases, border security and police facilities, according to the sub-decree.
The MoE will also have the power to re-adjust boundaries and establish community zones across 933,577 hectares of protected areas and the biodiversity conservation corridors connecting those areas.
The MoE has not publicly released information about which specific “individuals or legal entities,” as the sub-decree states, will receive land titles in protected areas. Two maps of Cambodia attached to the sub-decree, outlining potential boundary and zoning adjustments to protected areas, lacked clear coordinates but showed a proliferation of designated community zones.
“Does this mean that we will see people in these regions that have lived there for generations get tenure? We don’t know,” said Courtney Work, a forest anthropologist who has worked extensively in the protected Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. “That is the question to watch.”
Secretary of State for the Council of Ministers, Ken Satha, who signed the request for the Ministry of Environment to readjust protected area boundaries, said that he does not know the details of the specific areas where land titles will be granted nor which parts of protected areas will be turned into community zones.
“I do not know because I am not an expert officer, I just approved the principle of the government,” he said, declining to comment further. “Please ask the Ministry of Environment.”
Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheatkra did not respond to requests for comment.
Privatization of protected areas
The most recent plan to privatize land in protected areas began in July 2020.
Prime Minister requested the MoE, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) to work with local authorities to grant land titles to people who had occupied agricultural land inside protected areas “for a long time,” according to a Council of Minister’s statement.
He ordered the ministries to allocate 10 percent of land inside protected areas for community use, according to a statement from the Office of the Council of Ministers.
Protected areas, overseen by the MoE, are divided into four zones: the core zone, comprising the most ecologically valuable land; the conservation zone, which acts as a buffer around the core zone; the sustainable use zone, which allows local or indigenous communities can access natural resource and community zones, where communities can live and farm.
In 2017, the MoE introduced Biodiversity Conservation Corridors, which encompass approximately 1.5 million hectares, to link protected areas.
Koh Kong was the first province to privatize protected areas after the Prime Minister’s July 2020 statement. A March 2021 sub-decree privatizing 126,928 hectares in protected areas quickly led to vast amounts of land being siphoned off to land speculators and powerful officials, according to a Mongabay investigative report.
“Every time we hear about a re-writing of the boundaries of protected areas, we see how the total size of the country’s protected forests diminishes and is degraded further, how influential tycoons and/or families of the [ruling] Cambodian People’s Party elite end up with even more land concessions, and how local communities end up in an even worse state than before,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.
A working group launched in June by an order from the Council of Ministers and led by the MoE and MAFF reviewed protected areas and biodiversity conservation corridors across 15 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces:Tboung Khmum, Kratie, Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Stung Treng, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey, Banteay Meanchey, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu, Kampot and Takeo.
MAFF Secretary of State Ung Sam Ath hung up the phone when contacted by CamboJA and did not respond to further inquiries.
MAFF spokesperson Im Rachna did not respond to requests for comment.
“Third wave” of deforestation or advancing land dispute resolution?
Long-time environmental activist Marcus Hardtke said he saw the reconfiguration of land inside protected areas as potentially the latest stage of massive forest destruction in Cambodia.
At first, massive logging in the 1980s and 1990s reduced Cambodia’s forest cover by an estimated 40 percent. Later, beginning in the late 1990s, the government granted economic land concessions across more than one million hectares until issuing a moratorium for new concessions in 2012.
“I would call this a new third wave of forest destruction,” said Hardtke, who has monitored deforestation in Cambodia since the 1990s.
But he noted the sub-decree was still in the early stages of implementation and the outcome was yet to be seen.
In the past decade, the MoE has also been leading a push to establish and monetize REDD+ projects (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) within protected forest areas such as Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary. These projects, which allow companies to pay to protect forests to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, may be impacted by land titling issued in or around their sites.
Conservation International, which manages a REDD project in Prey Lang, did not respond to request for comment prior to publication.
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which manages a REDD project in Keo Seima, “has not yet received the detailed spatial data underlying the maps presented in this sub decree,” said Alistair Mould, WCS Operations Manager.
Mould said that clearly identifying zones inside protected areas for community use would improve protection of core and conservation zones in forests and continue WCS’ efforts to secure local communities’ land rights. Yet he noted there have also been “more recent clearance” of forests by migrants without long-standing ties to the area.
According to satellite data from Global Forest Watch, Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary lost 3,639 hectares of forest in 2021.
“Without the zonation process complete and management zones in place, preventing these types of clearance is more difficult,” Mould said. Clearly identifying community and sustainable use zones — where people can live or access natural resources — in protected areas will ensure “any future encroachment into forested areas outside of these zones can be clearly identified and prevented.”
Head of REDD+ Task Force and Secretariat Paris Choup declined to speak to reporters and said all inquiries should be handled by Ministry spokesperson Neath Pheaktra.
Cambodia Indigenous People’s Organization coordinator Sompoy Chansophea said he had heard of officials planning to measure land for communities in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri area in connection with the sub-decree.
He said land titles issued to indigenous communities, many of whom have land claims overlapping with protected areas, should be given as communal land titles encompassing sacred sites and traditional agricultural areas, instead of individual titles.
“We will ask authorities to put that land as communal land titles and not for private land titles,” he said, expressing concern indigenous communities would end up selling individual land titles otherwise.
Researcher Tim Frewer acknowledged private investors would likely take advantage of the sub-decree. But he remained optimistic that it could also provide a much-needed legal avenue to resolve conflicts between communities and the MoE over farmers’ presence in protected areas by granting them recognition.
“I wouldn’t write it off as a land grab for the rich and powerful if it has the potential to resolve some of those disputes between small farmers in protected areas, which are super wide spread,” he said. “It depends on how it will be implemented.”
“This is really putting the MoE in a much, much more powerful position,” he added. “The MoE now has a lot of land under their management and the power to designate how that land is going to be used.”
(Additional reporting: Khuon Narim, Sovann Sreypich and Sorn Sarath)
This story has been updated on December 28, 2022 to include comments from Wildlife Conservation Society.