Titling Project Denied Minorities Property Rights

Hundreds of indigenous minorities in Ratanakkiri province are being made worse off by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling scheme which, rather than securing their property rights, is contributing to the loss of their ancestral lands, according to a new report.

The report supports complaints aired since last year by minority communities in the country’s northeast that the prime minister’s land-titling initiative, known as Directive 01 and launched in June, is depriving them of their rights to communal land titles.

“As the research findings dem­onstrate, Directive 01…has created numerous issues that affect indigenous people and their lands in Ratanakkiri province. Indigenous people, NGOs, and local government officials predicted that the impact of this policy, as implemented, would be loss of indigenous land, livelihoods, identity, and culture,” an executive summary of the report states.

Produced by seven organizations —including the International Labor Organization, the Community Legal Education Center and the Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, the authors of the report surveyed 79 villages in Ratanakkiri province where indigenous communities had started the application process for communal titles.

The survey found that 26 of those communities, or roughly 1 in 3, had all or parts of their land demarcated for private titles under Directive 01, and 25 of those 26 communities were disappointed with the project and the private titles that were on offer.

“One of their most common reasons for dissatisfaction was because the policy did not secure their communal land, and in fact caused them to lose more land,” the report says.

Established by the country’s 2001 Land Law, communal titles are designed specifically to secure the ancestral lands of ethnic minority communities. Unlike private titles, communal titles make it all but impossible for outside interests to buy the land.

According to the report, the student volunteers carrying out Mr. Hun Sen’s land-titling project, and local government officials, offered ethnic minority villagers two options: Take the private titles, or get no titles at all and likely lose whatever land they currently occupied.

“Villagers were told that all of their land would go to the government or companies if they did not accept the private titles,” states the report, which will be launched officially today.

“Local government officials said they would not resolve future disputes for villagers if they chose not to participate in [Directive 01],” the report adds.

Though Mr. Hun Sen launched the student volunteer land-titling scheme to much fanfare and publicity, promising that hundreds of thousands of families living precariously on state land would receive private titles for their homes and farms, the prime minister clarified a month later that the scheme did not extend to communal titles, which were designed specifically to protect ethnic minorities.

Ek Tha, spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said the title push was on the whole doing well.

“We are doing our best for the people and the nation as a whole,” he said.

And while the project would not satisfy everyone, he conceded, “if we are satisfying 80 to 90 percent of the population, it means we are doing a very good job.”

Mr. Tha said the report was delving into a “complicated issue” that needed “deep investigation,” but suggested that some of the ethnic villagers may be fueling the problem by also grabbing for increasingly valuable land.

“Some people control the state land and when the price of land is expensive everyone claims the land for themselves,” he said.

Officials at the Ministry of Land Management, which is coordinating the project, could not be reached.

Khun Sanoy, a rice farmer from O’Chum district’s La’ak commune and an ethnic Kreung minority member, said Monday that he had little choice but to take a private land title.

Mr. Sanoy said local authorities pushed him and 82 fellow Kreung families into taking the private titles late last year by warning that they would get no help in their land dispute with a private rubber firm that was encroaching on their ancestral lands.

With no alternatives, Mr. Sanoy said they took the private titles but were not happy with them.

“The private land titles are not enough to cultivate land like we could if we had a communal land title,” he said. “We can’t clear more land and expand our farms because the authorities have limited the land for my family.”

Ethnic minorities in the northeast practice upland rotational farming, unlike the lowland Khmer who are almost exclusively sedentary rice farmers.

Chhay Thy, an investigator for local rights group Adhoc based in Ratanakkiri, said the government’s goal appeared aimed at turning the province’s indigenous minorities into a labor force for the provinces rapidly expanding rubber plantations, a key industry the government has singled out for promotion.

Besides jeopardizing their traditional farming practices and very ways of life, Mr. Thy said, indigenous families were worried about making ends meet without their communal lands and on the low salaries offered at rubber plantations.

“The villagers could face serious problems because they can’t make enough money to feed their families when they lose their farmlands,” he said.

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