Hun Sen’s Land Titles Receive Rare Praise From Germany

Since Prime Minister Hun Sen announced an ambitious new plan some 10 months ago to make nearly half a million families official land owners, hardly a week goes by that a rural community does not complain of local officials trying to scam the project.

But when Franz-Volker Muller, who heads the land rights program for the German development agency GIZ, addresses the World Bank’s annual conference on land and poverty in Washington on Tuesday, he will paint a very different picture. In the most comprehensive report on the prime minister’s land titling project to date, Mr. Muller, with a few reservations, will anticipate a resounding success.

“If the campaign reaches its goal, and at the moment there is no obvious reason to put this into question, the success will be huge,” Mr. Muller concludes in his report entitled A Surprising Political Initiative to Recognize Human Rights in the Cambodian Land Reform.

“In a period of only one single year, almost two million people, most of whom were illegally using state public land before, will see their land rights secured. This can be considered a tremendous step towards the progressive realization of human rights of Cambodia’s vulnerable and poor populations in the rural areas,” he wrote.

Mr. Hun Sen first announced the project—dubbed Directive No. 1—in mid-June. Vague on details at first, Mr. Hun Sen said the new titles would be going specifically to families living in state forests, economic land concessions and form­er timber concessions. The target is to reach 470,000 families living on 700,000 parcels of land covering a total 1.8 million hectares by June of this year, just one month before the national elections.

By Mr. Muller’s estimation, the government is roughly half way toward its goal having surveyed nearly 390,000 parcels as of January.

“The whole idea is to provide land tenure security for the people who use the land,” Mr. Muller said in an interview Wednesday. “If at the end of the year [hundreds of thousands of] people get private land titles, I can only say well done.”

Most of the 2.2 million private titles the government had given out before the prime minister’s project got under way went largely to lowland farmers living on state private land, where the country’s Land Law gives them some tenure rights. The new titles, Mr. Muller said, are going mostly to families living on state public land in the highlands, such as state forests, where the Land Law gives them nothing.

“The titles are going to people who had no legal rights before and they [the survey teams] went into an area they have never been before,” Mr. Muller said. “Now we see the forest land, where nothing happened before, is included…and this is why I am very positive.”

Mr. Muller admitted that he neither went into the field nor interviewed any of the families involved in the titling project, and that all his data was derived from government reports.

His praise for the project is not without caveats.

He calls his report only a “preliminary” look at a yet-unfinished project, and he said that his high marks for the project are “overshadowed” by the problems the prime minister’s scheme is causing communities of indigenous ethnic minorities—some of the most vulnerable groups of people in the country. Such groups have been denied their chance at communal titles after being pressured into taking the private titles by those carrying out the scheme.

Mr. Muller notes, too, the “political calculus” Mr. Hun Sen has surely worked out in timing the land-titling project to wrap up just ahead of July’s national elections.

But Mr. Muller believes the prime minister was more interested in reasserting his authority over government ministries that have for years ignored a long list of top-level directives aimed at easing the burden of the country’s break-neck development on the most vulnerable.

“Directive No. 1 is not just a means for the [prime minister] to re­gain credibility in parts of the elec­torate,” Mr. Muller said in his report. “Directive No. 1 seems to be most importantly a means for the [prime minister] to regain leadership internally over some centrifugal forces in his own government.”

Mr. Muller also believes the project’s benefits, which have relied on help from several thousand volunteer students to measure the plots for new titles, will live on after June—and the election.

“Before you had this,” Mr. Muller said, darting a hand under his desk to suggest the giving and taking of bribes.

Though he said it remained to be seen whether that will change in urban areas, where the price of land is far higher than in the rural reaches.

Despite the rosy picture painted by Mr. Muller in his report, human rights groups say many rural communities—especially those home to the country’s beleaguered ethnic minorities—are feeling let down by the land-titling project.

The families who need the titles the most, they say, are being left out.

“The outcome is of course positive for people who did receive land titles,” said Nicolas Agostini, a legal adviser on land issues for local rights group Adhoc. “However, the scheme does not address the needs of those people and communities who are most in need of land tenure security: people who live in disputed areas in the countryside or areas coveted by investors, people who live in informal urban settlements and indigenous people.”

And by circumventing the existing titling process through the Ministry of Land Management, the prime minister’s project is making those institutions even weaker, said Mr. Agostini.

“The fact that the new land titling scheme is funded by private donors, including the prime minister and his wife, raises significant concerns regarding both transpar­ency and accountability,” he said.

For all the thousands of land titles the prime minister has handed to lucky families across the country in person, the government’s international aid donors working in the area of land titling have remained completely in the dark.

Even GIZ has been left out from the very start. Not even Mr. Muller, who has been working with the government on land issues for the past eight years and runs his office out of the sixth floor of the Ministry of Land Management, is allowed to watch the survey teams at work.

“This illustrates one critical fact,” Mr. Agostini said.

“In Cambodia, stability is an illusion because it is based on strong individuals rather than strong institutions. In the run-up to the July 2013 general election, the prime minister is now clearly sending the message that to get anything in Cambodia, one has to come to him.”

With a few exceptions, Mr. Agostini said, the survey teams are ignoring communities in dispute with well-connected owners of the country’s economic land concessions. Only a month into the program, Mr. Hun Sen himself said disputed areas were off limits to his student volunteers.

When a survey team showed up at Noy Sry’s village in Pursat prov­ince’s Veal Veng district, where families have been fighting to keep their farms from being taken over by an economic land concession owned by well-known business tycoon Try Pheap in 2010, her hopes of a land title were soon dashed.

“The student volunteers went to my village, they saw my cultivated land and my house on the land but refused to measure because they said my land is still in a conflict with the company,” said Ms. Sry, who has been farming the land since 1996.

“My husband used to be a soldier who served the country. Now the titling project doesn’t help him get a title to the land he cleared,” she said.

Pen Bonnar, Adhoc’s senior land program officer, said many of the titles do not go to the poor.

“This titling project is only helping to legalize land occupied illegally by rich and powerful people,” said Mr. Bonnar.

But where the project has been most inefficient, rights groups say, is in the most remote reaches of the country’s highlands where indigenous ethnic minority communities are being hemmed in by ever more economic land concessions and are having the new private titles pushed on them.

If they were allowed to apply for a communal title, which they should be under the Land Law, as part of the prime minister’s program, it would make it nigh impossible for outside developers to claim ownership.

In his report, Mr. Muller cites a recent survey by the International Labor Organization claiming that the survey teams tried convincing 23 indigenous minority communities in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces to take the private titles and that most, not fully understanding the consequences of their decision, went along with the idea.

Ever the optimist, Mr. Muller still believes that other developing countries in Cambodia’s situation can take some positive les­sons away from the project when he delivers his report to the World Bank conference.

“It’s the only country that does such a huge effort. This is happening nowhere else at the moment,” Mr. Muller said. “Where there is a political will there is a way.”

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