Land-Title Reform to Slow as German Project Shuts Down

An international aid project that helped modernize the problematic land-title system will suspend op­erations at the end of the month, project managers and donors confirmed this week. 

The withdrawal of the German-funded land-title project because of a lack of funds is a setback for those who hoped to see improvements in the system, which was crippled by displaced and de­stroyed property records during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Land consultant Craig Martin said the German project, which developed a cheap and quick way to map land, was important to the nation’s economic development.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to do it before there’s a lot of development,” he said last week.

Although property in Phnom Penh is generally well documented and workable property laws are in place, an uneven legal system leaves room for corruption and selective law enforcement. Property disputes run a close second to domestic violence cases in the courts.

One of the most recent high-profile cases involves US oil multinational Caltex.

At issue in the ongoing case is a piece of land that was sold to Caltex even though there might have been a lien on the property.

“For foreigners, duplicate titles are the problem,” said legal adviser David Doran.

He said corruption and the lack of a consistent searchable registration system is “very negative for development, because you can’t have secured lending.”

Outside the capital, things are even less sure, and rural residents—many without legal title—are vulnerable.

It is this situation that the German government’s Society for Technical Cooper­ation aimed to remedy.

Land registration and efficient property tax collection would help fill state coffers. Also, land titles encourage rural growth by giving farmers security and the ability to use land as collateral for loans.

Dittmar Jenrich, who heads the pilot Society for Tech­nical Co­op­er­ation project outside Kom­pong Thom town, was just beginning to bear fruit.

Transferring rough sketches onto an aerial photograph, a villager with only a few days’ training drafted an accurate map of Kra Chab village. The map was then photocopied on the back of “parcel forms,” provisional titles that villagers have begun to file with the land-title department.

“This is the first real proof, something we can hold in our hand,” Jenrich said. “This document, from the point of view of [a land registration system], is of the highest quality.” Though the forms are not legally binding, they are a prerequisite for a title.

Jenrich suggested rural development NGOs may be in a position to pick up where the Society for Technical Cooper­ation has left off. Many rural NGOs produce informal sketch maps as part of their early planning.

“They could go one step further,” said Jenrich, suggesting that NGOs work with the Land Title Department to produce the map necessary to file the provisional title forms.

Even if rural NGOs decide to continue this work, it remains to be seen whether the system will prove any more effective than previous efforts.

The hope was that the Society for Technical Cooper­ation’s system would work better than the title system started in 1989.

Under the 1989 system, the newly formed Land Title De­partment invited citizens to apply for titles, receiving 4.5 million submissions in three months. To date, only about 10 percent of the requests have been fulfilled.

Although the process is supposed to be free, “extra fees” are often required by bureaucratic officials, said Matthew Rendal, an instructor with the University of San Francisco’s legal education center in Phnom Penh.

“Most people can’t afford the 20 or 30 dollars [for a title], so they just go on living on their land,” he said.

Even if everyone had one, titles are not fool-proof, Jenrich said. “In Cambodia you have land titles without good maps. From a technical point of view it’s useless.”

The land-title project will be missed, according to people working on the issue.

“It’s a shame they’re going, because someone’s got to do it,” Rendal said.

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