Council of Ministers OKs Long-Awaited Land Law

The Council of Ministers on Wednesday approved a re­vamped land law, a move lawyers and land experts hope is the first step in sorting out Cambodia’s messy property system.

The proposed land law ad­dresses for the first time issues of concern to investors including al­lowing businesses to own property and legalizing the process of granting concessions to private companies.

Land titles will also provide greater security for the poor, in­cluding farmers at risk of losing their land to wealthier and more powerful investors.

“Up to this point it wasn’t even clear if anyone even owned land,” said J#anet King, the in-country director for the University of San Francisco’s legal education program. “At least this makes it clear that any land that is not public can now be owned. But how can you determine who owns what? That is going to be the big question.”

The proposed law is an expansion of a 1992 version by the Land Titles Department and the Asian De­velopment Bank. It is part of a package of requirements the government had to meet in order to receive the second part of a $30 million ADB loan to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“It is one of the most important parts of the loan,” said Someth Suos, ADB’s resident representative, adding that the writing of the law is being reviewed “very closely.”

Currently, it is unclear who owns what land in Cambodia. According to government figures, only 4 percent of the nation’s real estate is mapped and secured by legal title.

The Land Titles Department has yet to process more than 450,000 title applications, and land disputes clog the courts.

Potentially, implementation of the law and the issuing of titles could have a dramatic effect on many sectors including foreign investment, collection of land taxes, the banking system and environmental management, said Lim Voan, the director of the Land Titles Department.

The poor are also expected to benefit.

An August study from the Cambodia Development Re­source Institute found that the poor have “increasingly limited access to land.” In two provinces, between “11 and 13 percent of the land changed hands, to the net benefit of richer households” over the past five years, the study said.

However, there are still many steps to go before the proposed law comes into effect.

For example, it must now be passed article by article by the National Assem­bly, which still has not met be­cause of a months-long political stalemate.

In addition, enormous amounts of aid will be needed to complete a mapping and titling system.

The proposed law also does not go into detail about how land titles will be distributed and how property disputes will be re-solved.

The land-ownership problem in Cambodia dates back to when the Khmer Rouge destroyed ear­ly mapping efforts by the French in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Cambodia may be the only place where there is little tradition in land titling and tenure because it was destroyed—literally by the Khmer Rouge. Everything has to be developed again,” said Mika Torhonen, a land management expert with the Finnish company Finnmap.

Forced movement of Cambo­dia’s population because of fighting has exacerbated the confusion over who owns what, land experts said.

The Land Titles Department is working with the Finnish government and the private corporation Finnmap to develop a property-ownership system that uses aerial photographs.

Cambodia’s limited infrastructure may actually help future mapping and titling efforts, said Sven Wik, Finnmap’s project manager.

“Technically, it’s an advantage because we can start from the beginning with new technology. It will actually make the process cheaper,” Wik said.

But first, any land title project needs legal backing and foreign aid, Lim Voan said.

A similar project in Thailand is expected to take 20 years and cost about $359 million. Land titling in Cam­bodia will take about 10 years, Wik said.

A major problem in the current land titling system is that an applicant must get at least seven signatures—and pay unofficial “fees” at each step of the way—in order to get a title.

An earlier effort by the German aid organization GTZ to streamline the authorization process was not legalized by the Council of Ministers before aid ran out. Finnmap has incorporated staff from the GTZ project and is also proposing a land titling system that would require fewer signatures, Wik said.

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