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Challenges in tackling land issues in Cambodia

Sim Vireak / Share:
Minister Chea Sophara hands a land title to a villager. Ministry of Land Management

Cambodia is facing complex structural challenge to deal with land disputes. As the economy grows with high influx of capital investment ready to rip benefit from speculation and structural weaknesses of the land management system, tackling the land issues is becoming even more difficult.

The first Land Law was promulgated in 1992 and amended in August 2001. Cambodia has a dual land tenure system containing both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ titles. Soft title applies to land rights that are registered by a local authority. Hard title applies to land rights registered by national level under the jurisdiction of the Land Management and Planning office. Cambodia aims to eventually register all the estimated 7 million land parcels with nationally recognized hard title by 2021. By the end of December 2018, around 5.1 million land titles were issued, which is equivalent to 73.25%.

In any land dispute, it is extremely difficult to identify who is the real victim. There are conflicts between the poor and the rich but there are also conflicts among the riches. For instance, an anecdote had it that a commune chief certified soft title over the same plot of land to two different tycoons. When asked why he did so, the commune chief told the court that he had no choice because he was threatened by two very powerful tycoons.

On another aspect, it does not mean to say that the poor are always the victims. There are some cases that certain individuals exploit the public sympathy by labelling themselves as the “poor” and “vulnerable” but in fact they are illegal land encroachers who stand on the mantra that say, “if you win, you get the land; if you lose, you will get the government’s compensation.”

Whenever there are land disputes, it is hard to find examples of successful resettlements owing to the involvement of many stakeholders. Sometimes the issues are politicized, demonized and victimized. So far, the settlement of the relocation of peoples from the White Building can be considered as a model for future redevelopment projects, where resolutions were smooth and acceptable by parties concerned.

In addressing land dispute, it is suggested that Cambodia should set a uniform standard formula to address those issues; however, such requirement is quite challenging- considering that different locations of lands would pose different sets of problems and resolutions, including the size of financial compensation and types of lands for resettlement.

Despite many structural challenges and limited capacity, coupled with challenges posed by social, economic and political externalities, many practical measures have been put into place to accelerate the resolution of the outstanding land disputes so as to provide justice for the people who are the real victims and to promote social harmony.

Concerning the dispute settlement mechanism, with the recent nomination of the Minister of Land Management to lead the National Authority of Land Conflict Resolution, Cambodia now has a single window to address all land disputes.

Regarding the economic land concessions (ELCs), a moratorium was put in place in 2012 owing to the understanding that some companies did not conducted investment activities as pledged and only created problems such as deforestation and forced evictions. After the review in February 2016, 23 of the 113 ELCs issued by the environment ministry had been revoked and other four companies had voluntarily handed their concessions back to the state. State also pledged nearly 1 million hectares of re-appropriated property to be handed over to the poor families.

Sugarcane ELCs have been at the center of contentious land issues. For current update, in Koh Kong province all the disputes with 986 families were fully resolved. In Kampong Speu province, the land ministry has received 3,349 identification information sheets, among which nine cases had been resolved, other 195 cases have been successfully negotiated, while the other remaining cases are under review.

In Preah Vihear province, 57 cases have been settled and 230 cases were rejected by the authorities for reasons that some cases already received settlements; some claims are not related to the ELCs and some claims overlapped with the forest coverage as well as other forms of state’s public property.

In Oddar Meanchey Province, three licenses of ELCs have been revoked and a complete settlement has been reached for 412 households. The affected families were provided a total of 1,028.37 hectares of land through a social land concession.

Regarding the issues of indigenous communal land registration, it is worth to note that such land registration is not for the purpose of private ownership. It is for collective use/ownership, and therefore cannot be used as a collateral or security for private financial handlings.

In actual implementation, the procedure for indigenous communal land registration can be time consuming. The size of land is relatively bigger, and some boundaries are accessible only through forests. In addition, Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries need to review the existing maps before the requests submitted to the government for land reclassification as private land of the State for communal registration.

Sometimes, there is difficulty in reaching internal agreement within the communities as certain community members are not willing to register the land for collective ownership. Some communities even demand more land than their actual need. As such, among the 137 indigenous communities that had already been registered as legal entities, only 59 communities have submitted requests for communal land registration. As of May 2019, the Ministry of Land registered land entitlement for 24 indigenous communities (equivalent to 684 parcels, 22,682 hectares).

Comparing with other countries in the region, Cambodia is the leading country in terms of indigenous communal land registration. Cambodia has 24 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 200,000, equal to 1.5% of Cambodia’s total population. However, since the start of indigenous communal land registration in 2009, Cambodia has registered 24 indigenous communities.

Thailand, which has 20 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 1,000,000 living in 20 provinces, has registered the land for only 4 indigenous communities in Nakhon-Pathom and Lamphun provinces. Laos PDR, which has 160 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 3,000,000, has registered land for only 3 indigenous communities. Vietnam, which has 54 ethnic minority groups and number about 14 million equaling to 13% of the total population, has no collective land registration but has allowed the establishment of only forest communities. Myanmar, which has 130 ethnic minority groups or 30% of the total population, has yet to conduct any indigenous communal land registration. Indonesia, which has 1,128 ethnic minority groups, has registered the land for only 9 indigenous communities.

Sim Vireak is Strategic Advisor to the Asian Vision Institute (AVI) based in Phnom Penh.

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