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For the majority of Cambodia’s people, life is short and tough. Nearly 70 percent of the population subsists on less than US$2 a day and one in three children under five are underweight for their age. International aid has propped up basic services in Cambodia for over 15 years and currently provides the equivalent of half the government budget.

Yet Cambodia is rich in timber, minerals and petroleum and over the past 15 years, the Government has leased 45 percent of the country’s land to private investors. What happened to these natural resources and where has all the money gone?


Since 1995 Global Witness has exposed how Cambodia’s political and business leaders have exploited the country’s natural resources for personal profit and to shore up their own positions of power. Instead of harnessing these state assets to kick-start sustainable economic growth, their mismanagement has fuelled conflict, corruption and human rights abuses. Meanwhile Cambodia’s international donors have turned a blind eye and continued to finance essential state services such as infrastructure, healthcare and education.

In the aftermath of Cambodia’s civil war both the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government used logging to fund military campaigns. The war ended in 1998, but the destruction of Cambodia’s forests through illegal logging and associated corruption continues. Global Witness has exposed how the country’s most powerful logging syndicate is led by relatives of Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials.

Since 2008, these timber barons have diversified their interests, leasing out vast tracts of land for plantations growing export crops like rubber and sugar. A sudden wave of land grabbing has gripped the country, with 2.6 million hectares – equivalent to 76 percent of Cambodia’s arable land – transferred largely from small-scale farmers to agricultural companies. At the beginning of 2009, concessions totalled just 1.1 million hectares - there's now more than twice that number.

In May 2013, our report and video Rubber Barons revealed for the first time how rubber is a key driver of this problem. Vast amounts of land have been acquired for rubber plantations in Laos and Cambodia by two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). These rubber barons are financed by international investors including Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private lending arm of the World Bank.

The consequences for those who live in the way of the land grabbers are devastating. It is estimated that 700,000 Cambodians have already been negatively affected by land grabs and, since 2003, at least 400,000 people have been forced off their land, usually without consultation or compensation. Repression and violence against those who speak out is increasingly severe, as shown by the murder of activist Chut Wutty in April 2012 and the shooting of a 14 year old girl in a land eviction a month later. Problems around land are threatening to reach boiling point and have factored highly in anti-government protests following the July 2013 general election. These demonstrations have been met with excessive use of force by the authorities resulting in the deaths of more civilians.

Global Witness’ Cambodia campaign exposes the corruption that underpins the country’s land crisis. It seeks to protect the land rights of local communities by challenging the culture of secrecy currently shrouding land investments and pushing for an end to the persecution of those who dare to speak out. The international community must push the Cambodian government to suspend all new land investments and implement reforms that will ensure that land is managed in a way that finally benefits the Cambodian people rather than a small, corrupt elite.

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