Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories to be published in The Cambodia Daily ahead of the international donor meeting that begins Wednesday. The stories will mostly examine the various issues of reform the government continues to face, and the progress that has been made in those areas.
Oxfam GB keeps a file of clippings from the English and Khmer press on land disputes in Cambodia. The file, a shelf of binders, is nearly 2 meters long. In the last two months alone, three binders have been added.
By one estimate, 200,000 poor Cambodians are currently involved in land disputes with powerful people—generals, high-ranking government officials and businesses.
The chaos that is Cambodian land management is a major obstacle to development here. Few have titles to the land they live on or farm, and the powerful frequently lay claim—legally or illegally—to vast swaths of land. No reliable system exists to mediate these disputes. And the number of people without land is rapidly increasing—an estimated 12 percent to 20 percent of the population is landless.
At the coming meeting of aid donors to Cambodia, whose theme is poverty reduction, land reform will be one of the high-priority issues that merits its own special session.
“The issue of land, in a country where so many people are dependent on land resources, is incredibly important,” said Steven Schonberger, the World Bank’s senior operations officer in Cambodia.
Some say that progress on the issue can finally be seen, although it will take decades to fix. But many doubt that the government has the will to address a problem so rooted in corruption and greed—much of it within the government itself.
Critics say the steps taken so far have been the easy ones; they say the government has avoided tackling the really difficult, politicized issues at the heart of land reform.
“Our major concern at this stage…is regarding prioritization of activities within the reform program,” states the collective report prepared by Cambodian NGOs for the donor meeting.
The NGOs are worried that the government will focus on technical matters such as land titling, mostly in uncontested areas, rather than truly reforming land management to address rural poverty.
Last August, a new land law was passed. It includes new procedures for titling and a new nationwide body to mediate land disputes. It gives hill tribes the right to collective land ownership and provides for the distribution of land to the landless poor.
Since then, several of the law’s supporting subdecrees have been written. One allows for the systematic surveying of the country—going through each province, each village, and awarding titles to the rightful owners of land.
Cambodia, Finland, Germany and the World Bank have pooled nearly $35 million to survey six provinces, hoping to award 1 million titles over 5 years.
Another subdecree allows those whose provinces are not yet surveyed to obtain interim titles. A third creates the Cadastral Commission—the administrative body that will mediate land disputes on the district level, with province- and national-level appeals available before resorting to the courts.
But so far only the laws exist. They are beautiful laws—good for the poor and the environment—and it is too soon to expect implementation, government supporters and critics agree. They disagree about whether the implementation will occur.
“There is no real will,” said George Cooper, a consultant who works on land disputes for Legal Aid of Cambodia. “The generals and other powerful people have just flung their names all over the country,” and the government has no real interest in giving ownership of that land to poor farmers.
Cooper and other critics note that policymaking to date has focused on the relatively uncontroversial issues of surveying the country and creating a new bureaucracy.
And the provinces currently being surveyed are not in areas likely to cause major conflicts, such as border zones, noted Thun Saray, director of the human rights group Adhoc, which works with land issues.
In any case, simply registering land won’t solve poverty, Thun Saray noted. “Even if their land is registered, poor people will still sell their land for inadequate compensation when they get sick and need money for hospital bills,” he said.
The hard issues remain. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle will be sorting out all the land that belongs to the government—estimated at 83 percent of the country.
This land includes lakes, rivers, forests, roads, airports and train stations, schools, jails, government buildings and the like. It also includes large areas belonging to individual ministries and the military, which have always managed, leased and sold their land however they saw fit.
This land needs to be surveyed, and rules need to be made about what can and can’t be sold and where the money goes. But high-ranking officials, accustomed to profiting personally from such land, are unlikely to give it up willingly.
“It’s a big job, and it’s a sensitive job, to figure out where all the government land is,” Cooper said. “The government and the consultants are discussing it and trying to figure out where it is, but I don’t believe there’s any organized effort to go forward with this.
“It’s so obviously necessary—you need to know where the government land is if you’re giving private titles.”
Willi Zimmerman, team leader for the Cambodian-German land management project, said surveying state land has not yet begun. Once it is reformed, management of state land will not be centralized in one office, but ministries will have to manage land in a transparent manner and follow the same rules, he said.
Two other major aspects of the 2001 law have not yet been outlined in subdecrees. One is the survey of agricultural-industrial concessions, which may not sit well with the entrenched business interests who control the plantations.
Some 800,000 hectares are currently under concession, but “many of the concessions are not being used,” Zimmerman said. Immense fields—up to 150,000 hectares—lie fallow. “It’s a waste of state land,” Zimmerman said.
The concession survey has not yet been started.
Another new principle, called “social concessions,” is the awarding of land to the needy. The law vaguely provides for this radical idea, but who will get the land? What land will they get? How? Will they have a choice?
Critics say the government is putting off answering these questions. Even government supporters say this will be a tricky issue to solve.
“This is a very difficult issue,” Zimmerman said. “All the rice-growing land is taken, so [recipients of social concessions] will have to change their traditional farming methods,” learning to grow new crops.
The land must also have access to markets and infrastructure, Zimmerman noted. “Giving someone land in the middle of nowhere doesn’t help them,” he said.
Meaningful land reform doesn’t just mean drawing maps and putting names to fields, Thun Saray said. It means managing land in an equitable fashion that helps the poor.
“Right now, we doubt that [the government] really has the will to integrate land reform with poverty reduction,” he said.