It has been almost 20 years since the 2001 Land Law was enacted. A major legislative breakthrough, and a Law that recognizes land and property rights throughout Cambodia. Two projects – the Land Management and Administration Project (2002-2009) and the Land Administration Sub-Sector Program (2011-2020) – implemented key parts of the Law, further improved the legal framework, and made land administration more responsive. In addition, a sub-decree enabling the Registration of Indigenous Communities Land was passed.
In June 2020, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved a $93 million credit from the International Development Association (IDA) for the Cambodia Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development Project III (LASED III). The project is aimed at improving land tenure security and access to infrastructure, agricultural and social services for the landless, smallholder farmers and indigenous communities in Cambodia.
One of the project’s goals is to help these communities secure their property from flawed government’s claims. Identifying state land remains a challenge that has unfortunately left many legal landowners to be denied of formal recognition and issuance of land titles, as they are told that they are living on state land illegally. This makes them vulnerable to forced evictions and when it happened, authorities would usually dispute their ownership by calling the land state property. In many cases, this would eventually lead to local government’s handing over of land to private interests, indicating collusion between the two parties.
While struggling for the recognition of their tenure rights, community leaders and land rights activists are increasingly criminalized and prosecuted by the state for charges like defamation, incitement, misinformation, criminal damage and assault, without proven evidence against them.
Just last month, the Koh Kong provincial court in southwest Cambodia charged three land rights activists, two of them were women, for defamation related to a land dispute. The lawsuit came from a former community representative whom the three activists had accused of inciting people living in Sre Ambel district to sell their community land to a private company. The case was connected to the prolonged land dispute between the community and the tycoon-owned Heng Huy Agriculture Group.
Land disputes caused by weak tenure rights continue to flare
Based on the 2019 report from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (LMUPC), from 2005 until November 2019, the Ministry’s Cadastral Commission had solved land conflicts involving 21,725 families, or equal to 6,550 hectares. Cases against high-ranking or powerful individuals often remain unresolved and most of the time local community members do not have the legal or financial capacity to win the case.
Another striking example is the eviction of 168 families living near what has now become the Monivong Hospital in Phnom Penh, whose land the government had conceded to the powerful Royal Group Company. The case happened in 2006 and the families were offered the average compensation of less than USD 20 per square meter of land, while the estimated market price was USD 200.
Weak law enforcement at the local level has also exacerbated the inequality in accessing land and natural resources for local and indigenous communities. Despite the national government’s ban on the sale of forest and state-owned lands – which are mostly governed by indigenous communities like those in northeastern Cambodia – underhanded sales remain prevalent.
National conference opens a dialogue between institutions
To address these issues the Land and Housing Rights Network (LAHRIN) in Cambodia, organized a national conference on 27 October 2020. The design and content of the conference was informed by three regional conferences happening in Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampot over the past three months. It was co-organized by 52 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) members of LAHRIN, IPFN, CSO-REDD+ and NGO Forum of Cambodia.
The conference significantly gave opportunities to participants to discuss disputed issues regarding Land Security and Decent Housing Rights and IP Rights and Natural Resource so to avoid the escalation of violation and criminalization, and to enforce the implementation of the relevant laws. About 187 people attended the conference, coming from various constituencies such as government bodies, the private sector, national and international NGOs, rights activists, and many more.
During the conference, participants raised issues ranging from indigenous communities and land registration to extractive industries encroaching on local lands, illegal fishing and hunting, and prolonged land conflicts. Participants called on the Cambodian Government to implement the following policy recommendations:
- Prohibit selling state lands, in particular those historically belonging to indigenous communities
- Promote transparency and inclusivity of civil society to participate in social and environmental impact assessments and further legal framework revisions
- Adhere to the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and include communities affected by land grabbing in conflict resolution.
The national conference and the regional conferences will continue to be a platform that gives opportunities to vulnerable communities whom may have found themselves entangled in land disputes with the powerful elites and an opportunity to raise concerns directly to elected officials in their constituency.
Chhean Savary, a woman who strives to protect her land and a representative of the community, said, “through the discussions in the three regional-level conferences, all stakeholders have acknowledged issues and discussed solutions at the local level, but there are still some issues that require national-level discussions with the participation of the Royal Government’s ministries and institutions.”
In the immediate aftermath of the conference, the provincial government took immediate measures to implement pending measures, which led to the handing over the certificates of communal land title to six indigenous communities (Pir, Katieng Lbaing II, Tun, Tumpoun Roeung Touch, Pyang and Sieng Say village) in Ratanakiri province, and stopped illegal encroachment in the Te Teuk Pus protected area.
LAHRIN and the conference organizers will continue to engage with the government on the effective strategies to recognize and protect communities’ land rights. In particular, they will follow-up on the recommendations raised during the national conference in a brotherly and collaborative spirit.
We have coordinated with various international and local NGOs, indigenous communities and representatives of Community Forestry, Community Fisheries and Community Protected Areas to lobby the government both national and sub-national levels, national assembly members, development partners and other stakeholders to solve all those issues through incorporating them in their respective strategic plan.