Monday, December 02, 2013
Land Management for the Benefit All Cambodians
By William E. Todd
U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia
The Cambodia Herald, December 1, 2013
Thank you once again for all of the timely and important questions and comments I have received in response to my column. Your suggestions and comments are what make this column a great forum for sharing ideas and concerns. Keep the comments coming!
This past week several world powers came to terms with Iran to address that country’s nuclear program. The agreement, a critical step to promote peace and security, is a reminder that dialogue and willingness to compromise are fundamental in any effort to resolve conflict. With that in mind, I continue to urge Cambodia’s two major parties to sit down together with open minds and a readiness to end the current political impasse. Dialogue is the most effective path forward, and can be particularly effective in addressing issues on which there is broad agreement among Cambodians. One such issue is the need for continued reform of land concessions.
Indeed, this very issue has been raised by many of my readers, and this week one of you asked: “How can Cambodia pursue a policy of land concessions that benefits all Cambodians?” Let me begin my answer by saying that the need to manage and develop Cambodia’s land is very real and will continue to grow as Cambodia’s economy expands. Steps taken by the Prime Minister and the Royal Government of Cambodia earlier this year underscored the government’s recognition of this imperative and their awareness of the importance of these issues to the businesses and citizens of Cambodia. In today’s column, I will speak more about the importance of making equitable land management a priority to support sustainable economic growth and the need for a transparent and fair process that benefits all citizens of Cambodia.
Developing Cambodia’s resources for the benefit of all is difficult to achieve without proper study and analysis, including the views of all members of society. The challenge that Cambodia faces is that there is a need to manage and develop its land to improve economic growth, create jobs, and alleviate poverty in a fair, transparent, equitable way, while finding the proper balance and minimizing the impact on its citizens and the environment - all a difficult undertaking.
In my opinion, to do this properly, Cambodia should study lessons learned from other countries on their land management issues, where long-term problems have developed due to short-sighted plans that featured economic development without consideration for the people who live, work, and rely on the land as well as environmental degradation issues. A particular concern of mine is the rapid pace of natural resource extraction in Cambodia which is not sustainable; growth cannot be based on the depletion of forests, lakes, and rivers. Rather, Cambodia’s comprehensive strategy for economic growth must be based on the renewable use of its natural resources, on improved training and job prospects for workers, and on the creation of a business environment that attracts responsible investors who will create higher skilled and better paying jobs.
Every government of every country requires some flexibility in acquiring land to improve the economic potential of its citizens. There is a process for public land acquisition in the United States – we call it “eminent domain” – just as there is in Cambodia. Of course, that process must be transparent, equitable, and designed to provide broad benefits across society. The process must also allow for and incorporate dissenting views and be respectful of rights and interests held by both the wealthy and the poor. Thus, at its core, the issue of land concessions is an economic issue that also shifts into the human rights arena if mishandled.
To date a significant number of communities across Cambodia have been affected by the loss of their land, their housing, and their right to access natural resources, which form the foundation of their livelihoods. These losses often exacerbate poverty and oblige those affected to engage in activities that contribute to further environmental damage. A system for land management and development works best when dissent, rather than being discouraged, needs to be incorporated into the process. The sharing of views of all stakeholders improves decision making and ensures that development benefits all sectors of society.
Also, if implemented without adequate safeguards, the environmental costs of economic land concessions can be high. Cambodia’s abundance of natural resources supports the economic needs of the majority of Cambodians who rely on agriculture, fishing, and forests for their livelihoods, and forms a significant part of Cambodia’s social, cultural, and spiritual heritage. Healthy rivers, lush forests, and productive fields are integral to Cambodians’ national identity, which is why Cambodians raise concerns when they witness economic land concessions that lead to the clearing of forests and other degradations of the environment. A recent scientific study of satellite images found that Cambodia has the fifth fastest deforestation rate in the world. This finding reminds us of the importance of informed deliberation in planning land concessions.
The Royal Government of Cambodia has demonstrated its awareness of many of the problems caused by some of the recent economic land concessions. The steps being taken to address these problems will be important for Cambodia’s sustainable and equitable development. As stated by UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi during his May 2103 visit, the government should be commended for its announced moratorium on new economic land concessions. Many agree that this decree was a critical step in the process to protect the vulnerable, as was its decision to review the existing concessions. The government has also restarted its significant effort to grant legal land title to many poor, rural families. We applaud this program, which has led to the issuance of more than 380,000 land titles and helps protect the human rights of many Cambodian families. If implemented with transparency and accountability, these land development projects can be a helpful tool for reducing land disputes caused by the present lack of proper documentation.
The United States remains committed to partnering with the Royal Government of Cambodia and Cambodian civil society to promote equitable land use in support of sustainable economic growth. The U.S. government is supporting civil society organizations that monitor the human and environmental impacts of economic land concessions. We also provide legal and other support services to affected communities to assist in resolving disputes. Through these endeavors, the U.S. government is helping to mitigate negative effects of economic land concessions, while promoting sound and equitable land use policies and practices for the future.
Development of a more transparent land tenure system governed by the rule of law will encourage equitable prosperity for Cambodians. Ensuring a system of land management that maximizes both equity and productivity requires that the interventions of the government are made with the full participation of the local communities, civil society, and the marketplace. Development of the land is going to happen; the question is how the key decisions will be made. An inclusive and deliberative process is the best way to ensure the benefits of Cambodia’s resources are extended to all segments of society. The U.S government will continue to work with the Royal Government and civil society to maximize the benefits of economic growth, preserve Cambodia’s precious natural resources, and safeguard the rights of all Cambodians.
Thank you very much for your questions and comments, which allow us to explore issues that are timely and relevant for Cambodia. To continue participating in this important dialogue, please send me your questions by emailingAskAMBToddPP@state.gov.
William E. Todd is U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia
Posted by Jendhamuni at 9:40 PM