Proposed agricultural deal carries risk for Cambodia's rural poor

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Cambodian farmers prepare seedlings for their rice plantation at the paddy rice farm in Kandol village, Kampong Cham province, about 60km north of Phnom Penh (AP file photo)

Voice of America | 18 February 2010

Robert Carmichael | Phnom Penh

An investment group out of Australia has unveiled a $600 million plan to create a massive farm project in Cambodia. However, human rights workers are concerned that this deal, and others like it, will do little to help Cambodia's rural poor. Robert Carmichael in Phnom Penh has more.

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BKK Partners, an Australian financial advisory firm, has a client that wants to buy 100,000 hectares of Cambodian land on which to grow crops such as rice, bananas, sugar cane, palm oil and teak.

BKK managing director Peter Costello was in Cambodia recently to discuss the idea. The client for the deal is a company called Indochina Gateway Capital Limited, which has ties to BKK.

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper recorded an interview with Costello, a former Australian finance minister, in which he explained why investing in food is so tempting. "I think agriculture is going to come back into its own as an investment in the decades that lie ahead and of course that's a great opportunity for Cambodia," he said.

The investors say the project will create jobs in an impoverished country, and help improve farming methods for the undeveloped - yet vital - agriculture sector.

But human rights workers say previous farm-industry deals have worked against ordinary Cambodians because of corruption, poor governance and often-violent land evictions.

Poor farmers often are kicked off the land and because of Cambodia's inadequate land-ownership records, often receive no compensation. So they wind up with no farm, no home and no way to start over.

Three years ago the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh said at least 59 land concessions totaling almost 1 million hectares had been granted to private companies for agriculture projects. It said that impoverished rural residents generally have lost out in such deals.

Government figures show it has approved 33 more projects since the U.N. report was released.

That does not include land concession granted to other countries. Qatar, Kuwait and South Korea have been pursuing concession deals here.

Matthieu Pellerin works on land rights for Cambodia human rights organization Licadho. He says corruption means that not only are the poor unprotected, the investors themselves may be at risk.

"Well-established system of corruption; a lack of checks and balances to ensure that poor communities, indigenous communities are not victimized by any kind of major agro-industry deals where sizable pieces of land are sold to private companies; the collusion of all state actors from the village up to the national level. All of these factors just make it very, very, very difficult if not impossible to abide by the book. I think that if one wants to really abide by the book, Cambodia in 2010 is not the place to come," he said.

BKK Partners' Costello says the investors plan to give five percent of the cash generated by the land deal to social projects in Cambodia.

But Pellerin says that may not benefit the poor, unless there is adequate oversight to make sure the money goes to community needs and not politician's pockets.

Opposition politician Son Chhay says if the BKK deal is done properly, it could mark a welcome change from past agreements with Chinese and Vietnamese agriculture companies. He says they do not invest in the country's people.

However, Son Chhay says it can be difficult to get information about land agreements. Until 2008 he headed parliament's foreign affairs committee, and he says members of parliament are blocked from examining contracts on such deals. "It's still the case that we are not able to get our hands on investment documents, and that's a cause for great concern," he said.

He says BKK must make the details of the deal public to ensure that rural poor do not lose out.

The issue of land seizures in Cambodia has drawn the attention of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights. Surya Subedi on a recent visit asked the government to suspend land evictions until it put in place proper legal safeguards. But the government refused, saying to do so would hold up development.

Subedi says a new law on government land seizures is too vague. "For example, what do we mean by public interest? If land can be acquired in the public interest, how do you define it? Who defines it?," said Subedi.

Opposition politicians and activists for the poor say the risk is that the government will simply seize any land it wants, and those farming the land will have no legal protection.
Original source: VoA
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2 Comments


  1. chea
    27 Sep 2010

    I know many Cambodians who suffer from losing farm land and house. They work so hard trying to get help from everywhere, but always run to dead end. It is a hopelesness world for the poor and the powerless. I don't know what's hun sen doing. He see with one eye and the other is blind. one in a while he sees things and fix it well, but most of the time he is blind. If he continue his bliness behavior,he will destroy the spirit of the nation and Cambodian people, and he is condemns all of them to hell. He himself will go to hell as well, because no human being can live in heaven life while he do such hell deeds.

  2. Danielle Nierenberg
    22 Feb 2010

    Just thought you might be interested in a piece I wrote from Lilongwe, Malawi, for the Wausau Daily Herald called "Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm it’s was out of poverty." I am blogging everyday from Africa and writing for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog at http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/. Please feel free to cross-post on your site. All the best, Danielle Nierenberg Here is the piece: Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard, and it looks a lot different from the Edgar yard in which Kristof grew up. Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have more than 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in 1997 as Peace Corps volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia is a technical adviser to the Malawi Ministry of Education, working to sensitize both policymakers and citizens about the importance of using indigenous foods and permaculture to improve livelihoods and nutrition. Kristof is a community educator who works to train people at all levels of Malawian society in low-input and sustainable agricultural practices. The Nordins use their home as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor-people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops might hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi — as well as in other African countries. Nowhere needs the help more than Malawi, a nation of 14 million in southeast Africa that is among the least developed and most densely populated on Earth. The country might be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago, the government decided to do something controversial and provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then, maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story. But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonder Bread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer as do hybrid varieties. “Forty-eight percent of the country’s children are still nutritionally stunted, even with the so-called miracle,” Kristof says. Rather than focusing on just planting maize — a crop that is not native to Africa — the Nordins advise farmers with whom they work that there is “no miracle plant — just plant them all.” Research has shown that Malawi has more than 600 indigenous and naturalized food plants to choose from. Maize, ironically, is one of the least suited to this region because it’s highly susceptible to pests, disease and erratic rainfall patterns. Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct — crops that already are adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change. “Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property. And although their neighbors have been skeptical, they’re impressed by the quantity — and diversity — of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on their small plot of land, providing a year-round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors. In addition, they’re creating a “model village” by training several families who rent houses on the property,) to practice and teach others about the permaculture techniques that they use around their homes. They also have built an “edible playground,” where children can play, eat and learn about various indigenous fruits. More important, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, burning and removing all organic matter, people can get more out of the land than just maize and reduce their dependence on high-cost agricultural inputs in the process. And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than import amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value-added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “The solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.” And as a visitor walked around seeing and tasting the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it became obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle.

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