In the aftermath of this year’s twin scourges of flood and drought that have left some 1 million people facing the worst food shortage in years, officials are beginning to acknowledge that a land crisis is the underlying cause of Cambodia’s losing battle with nature.
The problem is simply stated, but hard to solve: Those living on the margins of Cambodian society are being squeezed, by poverty, a population boom, corruption or a combination of the three, onto land that puts them right in the path of disaster.
“The people who are most affected are those living in the marginal areas,” International Federation of the Red Cross head of delegation Anthony Spalton said. “And the marginal areas are the only places where the poor can live.”
And the poor are multiplying, officials say, while what relatively little land remains available to them is being quickly claimed by Cambodia’s rich.
The population, which was estimated in 1979 to be around 4 million, has since tripled to 12.2 million, according to World Bank statistics. Most of these people live in Cambodia’s rural areas and depend on the land for their lives.
According to some experts, Cambodia’s population will top 15 million by the year 2010.
By the late 1990s, the group Oxfam noted in a 2001 report, the country had only 1.64 million hectares of unused land.
But these numbers fail to show how critical the situation is, activists and observers say.
“This is a huge problem—far from being addressed,” Legal Aid of Cambodia consultant George Cooper said.
The government passed long-awaited land use legislation last August but a single law isn’t likely to solve Cambodia’s institutionalized land use problems, Oxfam project assistant Try Aorng said. “One law is not enough,” he said.
Though the government has implemented some reforms, nothing so far has come close to helping the government get a grip on the land crunch, observers say.
“There are some good programs that are gearing up. All of these things are happening, but the problem is just so big,” Cooper said.
In 2000, as many as 13 percent of Cambodians were landless. This year, more than 15 percent of Cambodians are landless, Try Aorng said.
Cambodia’s land crisis is relatively new, both in scale and substance. Traditionally, the population has been small and its open spaces large. Even under the French, Cambodians enjoyed a kind of “squatters’ rights,” where people were allowed to take land as long they put it to good use.
“Historically, Cambodia was such an open place,” Cooper said.
While the causes of landlessness are complex and many, the fact is that the poorest are caught in a cycle as regular and as catastrophic as the annual rains.
The droughts this year caused $21 million in damage and the floods caused $9 million in damage, National Committee of Disaster Management Deputy Vice President Nhim Vanda said. Last week, three aid groups went out to the provinces to find out how critical the food situation was. Their answer: It was very critical.
“We have sent food to help 700,000 people throughout the country. Those 700,000 are the people who really need it,” Nhim Vanda said.
And this is only the beginning, experts say. Only 75 percent of the nation’s rice crop will be harvested as a result of the flooding and droughts, Nhim Vanda said.
This will deprive poor farmers not only of marketable rice and food this year, but seed rice for next year and in the years to come, Spalton said.
Some projects are under way that will help in the future. For instance, the government is now trying to put together titles for every property in Cambodia—but even that goal may have unintended consequences.
“It’s possible there’s a whole lot of conflicts out there sleeping. But this project is going to unearth this stuff, and so we’re going to see,” Cooper said.
Either way, observers say, Cambodia is still years away from settling its land crunch. “It’s going to take a lot of effort,” Cooper said. “For now, all you can do is focus on the worst cases.”
And things are even bleaker in some provinces. In Prey Veng and Takeo, for instance, yields will only come in at around 50 percent. Kompong Speu province will only see a 30 percent yield, Nhim Vanda said.