On International Day of Democracy we talk to Sophea Pheap, Facilitator of the National Land Coalition (NLC) in Cambodia and a staff member of ILC Asia member, the NGO Forum.
NLC Cambodia, or what is known as the Land and Housing Rights Network (LAHRIN), is an ILC-supported multi-stakeholder platform that involves ILC member organizations in Cambodia, government partners, and other local partners that pursues people-centred land governance for the Cambodian people.
This year also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) by the Committee for World Food Security (CFS). Cambodia is one of the many countries that adopted the VGGT in 2012. LAHRIN supports the mainstreaming of the VGGT and is an active member of the CAM-VGGT working group which advises, supports, and monitors the VGGT implementation, as the land rights of 85% of the 16 million Cambodia people depending on agriculture are jeopardized by the rapid structural transformation unfolding in Cambodia.
Despite progressive laws that the Government of Cambodia upholds, weak implementation and red-tape bureaucracy remain a challenge for local communities to protect their right to land. Often, they are excluded from meaningful participation and decision-making processes that allow them to have agency over land and natural resources that have been passed down to them for generations. NLC Cambodia and its partners have agreed to take stock and assess to which degree the VGGT has been used as a tool to contribute to tenure security at local levels. From 12 to 13 October 2022, LAHRIN will convene a national-level dialogue to reflect on and identify future roadmaps of land reform under the VGGT.
Have you noticed a change in Cambodia's land governance policies and practices since the adoption of the VGGT 10 years ago? If not, what has been the barrier? And how do you expect the national dialogue to push through it?
In Cambodia, we have the Land Law that was passed in 2001, National Forest Policy in 2002, and the Protected Areas Law in 2008. This was all passed before the VGGT adoption in Cambodia in 2012. What we have noticed in the achievements so far is that almost seven million individual land titles will be registered by 2023, and this is based on the report of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. By April 2022, the government claimed that they had registered around 93.1% of individual land titles.
As for indigenous communities, we can say that 37 indigenous communal land titles have been approved out of 160 recognized communities. However, many indigenous communities still lack their management plan, meaning they usually lack the proper documentation that proves how they sustainably manage and govern their land and how they can improve their livelihoods with the forestlands. So yes, we have increased the number of land title registrations, but we’re concerned about how the communities will eventually benefit from the land.
At the upcoming national dialogue, we expect to raise the issue of indigenous communal land titles in the protected areas and have the Ministry of Environment and provincial governments participate in this discussion. We have talked to legal experts and learned that the Laws remain consistent, but sometimes people misinterpreted them and had the wrong idea about governing forestlands and indigenous lands. This in turn causes the Ministry of Environment to hold back from granting land titles in the protected areas. Eventually, local communities become more vulnerable to encroachment on the forestlands and land grabbing incidents.
In light of International Day of Democracy, what does full and inclusive participation look like in Cambodia?
When the government attempts to acquire land for concessions or for investments in the Special Economic Zones, there’s usually a lack of consultation with communities living in said areas. Sometimes communities have limited access to information, which ideally should have been shared with them prior to the concessions, or sometimes they do get invited to the consultation, but there is no substantial information at all. Most of them do not have the knowledge to raise their concerns, so it means that we have to do a lot of capacity-building.
We think that a document that proves that such individual community members do govern these state lands is a solution to create a more participatory space for all. Because the government does recognise the rights of indigenous communities, they should at least acknowledge the possession of the forestlands by these communities. If we have this document in hand, we could show the local authorities that they have to consider the livelihoods of local communities and how the communities could benefit from such land-based investments.
How do you think the National Land Coalition in Cambodia (LAHRIN) is helping to promote democratic spaces and decision-making in the country?
NGO members of LAHRIN work directly with local communities. It is interesting to see that the government is now trying to delegate its authority to the sub-national level. It means that provincial dialogues, which are the mechanisms of NLC Cambodia, are becoming more relevant and should be strengthened because such a dialogue encourages LAHRIN’s NGO members to connect with government officials.
When we receive information from the government about a potential project, for example, we will disseminate it to community members and ask them for their feedback. We try to bridge the communication gap between the government and the communities, and we bring community members to consultations at the national level. We understand that the government is trying their best to include civil society and local communities in their processes, but some government bodies are still lacking the effort. We want the government to open their space to community representatives so they can participate and consult each other about developments that affect their lives.