SANTUK DISTRICT, Kompong Thom province – Hang Sal has 2 hectares of fertile land he cannot farm.
He, his wife and their three children were among the lucky 3,000-plus families with little or no land that were awarded private plots on eight new social land concessions set up by the Ministry of Land Management since 2008 with help—and $12.7 million—from the World Bank and Germany’s foreign aid agency, GIZ.
But Mr. Sal was also unlucky, because his 2 hectares on the Ti Po II concession are in the middle of a forest.
“I have no money to clear it,” he said Wednesday, standing next to his modest stilt home on the forest’s edge. “I am very poor, so every day I work for someone else to make money to support my family.”
Mr. Sal cannot afford to hire others to clear the land, so he chips away at it himself when he can. But that’s not often, because he is usually away working on someone else’s cassava or rubber plantation to earn a living.
Though happy to have the land, he said his life has not improved since moving onto the concession three years ago.
“For some people, it is unfair; some got good land and some got bad land,” he said. “I know many families that did not stay because they could not farm their land.”
A new study of the project released Wednesday by rights group Licadho, “On Stony Ground: A look into social land concessions,” says Mr. Sal is not alone.
After visiting all eight sites between October and March, Licadho says the project, which wrapped up in March, has so far mostly failed to deliver on its goals and left most of the families little to no better off.
It urges against using the experience as a model for a planned second phase which, if approved by the World Bank, would effectively lift a freeze on new lending to Cambodia the Bank imposed four years ago because of the government’s poor record on land rights.
“While additional support is needed to meet the promises of reduced poverty and increased food security for many of the families supported by LASED [Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development], the World Bank and GIZ first need to acknowledge that the project is far from a replicable model, and nowhere near a success story by any standards,” the report says.
Licadho’s findings also contrast sharply with the Bank’s own glowing opinion of its work on the project, which—on paper, at least—doled out 10,000 hectares of land to the families across the eight concessions in three provinces: Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom and Kratie.
In its last review of the project, in December, the World Bank gave itself solid marks across the board. It said all four of its main goals had been met. The more than 3,000 families had all been assigned land for homes, farms, or both, and nearly 60 percent of them had moved in. Of the families that had moved in, the Bank said all of them had started farming and that their incomes had, on average, more than quadrupled.
“The activities and accomplishments have provided good lessons learned for the identification, development and sustainability of future [social land concession] sites,” the Bank said at the time.
But Licadho said the reality for many of the families at all but one of the sites is not so rosy. It says many of the families complained of land that was too sandy or rocky to farm, or covered in forest they lacked the means to clear, of plots mired in land disputes, and of sites missing promised infrastructure, schools and clinics.
“Numerous villagers at seven of the eight sites reported limited ability to use the allocated agricultural plots and hence gained no significant improvement in terms of food security,” the report says. “As a result, poverty reduction was not achieved at the end of the project for the majority of the land recipients.”
According to the report, the government knew that at least two of the chosen sites were mostly covered with “poor” soil as early as 2006—two years before the project even began—thanks to a joint study by international consultants and local officials.
Licadho says some families have been forced to take on new debt to get by, find work as day laborers because their new farms were failing, or turn to logging.
As a consequence, the rights group says, some families have given up on the concessions and left. Based on its visits, it estimates that fewer than half of the 3,000 families assigned plots were occupying them, well below the nearly 60 percent claimed by the World Bank in December.
The Ti Po II concession should be home to 300 families. But Mr. Sal Wednesday estimated that fewer than 100 lived there now.
“Not many families live here,” he said.
Besides working for others to get by, he grows a few fruit trees in his yard and makes charcoal out of what he can log. He has taken out and repaid a $150 loan from a micro-lender and thinks he may have to do it again.
“Maybe, because I am very poor and I cannot make money,” he said.
Like Mr. Sal, Phal Sey, who moved onto the Ti Po II concession with her family three years ago, is surrounded by the remains of the ones who gave up.
“This family and that family did not stay,” she said, pointing to abandoned stilt homes across the narrow dirt road that runs in front of her own. “They built the houses, then they left. I don’t know how many, but many.”
Ms. Sey’s father also received a plot of sandy soil that has yet to prove its worth.
“First, he tried to plant rice, but it died. So he tried watermelon, but it did not grow well,” she said. “That’s why he’s going to try cashews.”
Ms. Sey said her father planned to start planting next month, now that the rain had started to fall regularly. But at the moment, she said, he was away working on someone else’s plantation so the family could survive.
“Since moving here, he has worked for other people,” she said.
But some families here are happy with what they have.
Half a kilometer down the road, Yin Khay said she and her neighbors had been blessed with good plots. Her own family has yet to clear most of their three hectares, and still has to borrow from neighbors now and then to buy rice.
But with money coming in from a small shop that sells snacks and vegetables, Ms. Khay has plans to save up enough to get the rest of their land cleared soon.
“It’s good soil,” she said. “Before, we could only farm on a small piece of land. Now we have more land and we can grow rice.”
Her neighbor, Nout Sam Aun, agreed. After three years here, he still relies on remittances from his two sons, who work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh. And he has seen neighbors unable to farm their own plots because other families that claim the same spot will not let them. But it’s better than what he had, he said.
“I think the social land concession is good because it gives land to people who did not have land, like my family,” he said.
But while getting the plots is one thing, keeping them is another.
One of the main goals of the LASED project is to give the families a piece of land they can own. But Licadho says the scheme is failing on that front, too.
By law, a family must occupy a plot on a social land concession for five consecutive years to qualify for a land title. But families that have been living on the sites for up to six are still waiting. Families that gave up and left, or intend to because their plots are of poor quality, may end up forgoing their claims.
“With the low settlement rates and limited use of agricultural land observed by Licadho…many land recipients risk failing to meet these conditions due to poor implementation of the project,” Licadho said. “Tenure security is by no means guaranteed for a sizeable part of the more than 3,000 land recipients.”
The World Bank did not reply to requests for comment. GIZ country director Adelbert Eberhardt declined to comment and said the request had been forwarded to the German Embassy, which also did not reply.
At the Ministry of Land Management, which is ultimately in charge of the project, spokesman Cheam Sophalmakara said the ministry was not aware of any of the problems the families say they are facing on the concessions.
“We require people who receive the social land concessions to follow the conditions and obligations, and if it is hard for them to follow the obligations, they should make a report and we will not ignore them,” he said.
Mr. Sophalmakara said plans for more roads, wells, houses, schools and clinics at the sites were underway. As for Licadho, he said the rights group was ill informed.
“Licadho should take a seat and talk instead of criticize the work of the experts. Our experts have received positive feedback, and I think the donors would not continue [the project] if it was not good enough,” he said.
In a statement accompanying its report, Licadho says both the government and the donors are to blame—the government for giving the families poor land, the donors for telling the government that the project is working and ready to be scaled up.
“The World Bank and GIZ cannot continue to deceive the public and other stakeholders,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in the statement.
The World Bank is preparing a second, $27-million phase to the project that would improve on the eight sites already established and add seven more.
To get started, though, the Bank will have to lift its moratorium on new lending to Cambodia, a proposal mired in its own controversy.
The World Bank imposed the lending freeze in 2011 in protest over the way the Land Management Ministry—the Bank’s future partner in any second phase of the LASED project—was doling out land titles.
Some 3,000 families were forced out of their homes in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood because the ministry refused to let them apply. The Bank said it would not lift its freeze until the Boeng Kak dispute was settled, a condition the government appears unwilling to meet.