Registration matters

Land titles help to prevent conflict

by Sun Narin

In depth

This informal settlement in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh was evicted in 2006.

This informal settlement in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh was evicted in 2006.

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Land disputes have become a serious and persistent issue in Cambodia. In response to unrest, the government stopped leasing large plots to private-sector investors a few years ago. Earlier land deals, however, are still causing tensions.

The Khmer Rouge ended private ownership of land and real estate in Cambodia. Its genocidal rule claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives from 1975 to 1979.

When the regime collapsed, most Cambodians were living in rural communities. Many had fled their homes, and no one wanted to settle in Phnom Penh, the capital, which was called “a ghost city”. In the acute crisis, people obviously did not worry much about formal land titles.

Attitudes changed as peace was restored and market-oriented development set in. Land conflicts have become common and persistent. Some cases haunt remote forest regions where indigenous communities have a traditional lifestyle that relies on natural resources found in the forests.

Land conflicts occur in other regions too, however. It matters, of course, that 85 % of Cambodia’s 16 million people depend on agriculture. Having land for cultivation is their top priority. Many smallholder farmers fear they may lose the land they cultivate some day.

Cambodia is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 14 % of the people live below the poverty line today. They have a purchasing power that equals less than $ 1.25 per head and day.

Legal activists say that land conflicts started in 1999, one year after the very last Khmer Rouge fighters were beaten along the Thai border. Land matters definitely became more tense, however, after the government passed a new land law in 2001.

Among other things, the law was designed to attract foreign investors. It introduced a system of land registration. In principle, it entitles people to land that they have been using continuously for at least five years. The registration process is still going on. By 2016 land titles had been officially recognised for about 60 % of all relevant plots. The government expects to conclude registration by 2023.

Another provision of the new law is economic land concession (ELCs). An ELC means that the government leases state-owned land of up to 10,000 hectares to private investors for a maximum of 99 years. The problem is that many ELCs were granted while title registration was still going on. This policy resulted in forced evictions and violent protests all over the country. Responding to the unrest, the government has been going slow on ELCs in the past few years.

All in all, the government has granted ELCs to more than 100 private-sector companies. Some 2 million hectares are affected. Land conflicts relate to agriculture, manufacturing industries, mining rights and the construction of hydropower dams. Urban development is another difficult issue (see box). Making matters worse, the rule of law is weak. People’s rights are not protected reliably even when they are officially recognised. 

Affected communities have staged many rallies in Phnom Penh, hoping that the government, and perhaps Prime Minister Hun Sen himself, would solve their problems. He has been in power for more than 30 years and is known to “get things done”. His means, however, are not always fair. Human Rights Watch accuses him of having abused his power and resorted to violent force. Villagers have also invited policymakers from the National Assembly, the Senate and relevant ministries to intervene.


Unheard voices

All too often, however, the village communities were not heard. Legal activists point out that powerful elites, including high-ranking government officials, are involved in most land conflicts. On the other hand, some 400,000 to 1 million people have been personally affected by land disputes, according to estimates. Adhoc, a Cambodian human-rights group, reckons that 60,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes.

Evictions can be brutal. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl was shot to death by government security forces as they cleared a village in the northeast. Vann Sophat of the non-governmental Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) likens evictions to “battlefields”. Protests are often crushed with force. Villagers who dare to oppose the security forces risk arrest, detention and prosecution. The courts are not believed to be independent, however, but to act on behalf of the government, as Vann Sophat reports.

Women tend to be particularly active in land disputes. “They depend on the land and house,” the activist explains. In Cambodian society, women are not expected to travel far. Many women are willing to risk their lives fighting for their land. When things turn violent, however, men mostly lead the protests, according to Vann Sophat.

Human-rights groups argue that the government has not handled land disputes well. Latt Ky of Adhoc points out that the government has typically failed to assess the situation on the ground properly before granting ELCs. Only after the fact did it notice who was affected. Moreover, the environmental impacts of ELCs were not assessed either.

Land disputes have hurt the government’s reputation. The ruling party’s share of the vote dropped by nine percentage points to slightly below 49 % in the general election of 2013. It still has the majority of legislative seats, however.

Even before the election, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged land-related problems. He decided to stop granting new ELCs in 2012 and limited the duration of future leases to 50 years. He insisted that local people deserve protection and promised to redistribute 1 million hectares of land to poor and dispossessed families. Human rights groups, however, say that little has happened since.

Serious efforts were made to resolve ongoing land conflicts. National and provincial committees have been established to consider these matters. However, the conflicting parties’ interests tend to be hard to reconcile, especially as the rights of ELC companies are defined in their contracts.

Human-rights activist Vann Sophat reckons that “just over 20 % of land conflicts have been resolved” so far. His organisation, the CCHR, has been supporting 41 communities in land disputes, and so far, a solution has only been found in 10 cases. He warns that many people concerned still do not have formal land titles, so future conflicts cannot be ruled out.  

Latt Ky of Adhoc says that the situation has generally been improving and no new conflicts have emerged since the government stopped granting ELCs. The unresolved conflicts are tough, however, and in the long run, he too expects new conflicts to arise. Future investors, he believes, will not want to pursue their business interests and will not be keen on compromises with local communities.

The human-rights activists agree that land titles will help to prevent conflicts in the future. According to them, it is essential to raise awareness of ownership rights among the people.  

Government officers argue that the land law is fine and will work out well in the long run. They admit that not everything is in place yet, but insist that the problems are being dealt with. 

To some extent the government is blaming problems on opposition forces. It has stated that “political parties have manipulated the current land issue shamelessly for their own political gain”. In the eyes of human-rights activists, however, the successful resolution of land issues depends on “the political will of the government”.


Sun Narin is a Cambodian journalist and lives in Phnom Penh.
[email protected]

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