Though they held out hope for years that they would get communal land titles, hundreds of ethnic minority families in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces have now opted to accept individual private land titles under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s new titling scheme.
While individual titles offer immediate protection from outside speculators and developers, minority members who have accepted them are disqualified from also receiving communal titles, which designates areas for traditional rotational farming, forest graveyards and “spirit forests.”
About 400 ethnic Bunong families—of about 1,000 families living in Bosra commune in Mondolkiri’s Pech Chreada district—were issued private land titles on November 15 after their land was measured by student volunteers, commune chief Youth Sarin said yesterday.
“The majority of the people [in the commune]…want private titles. Maybe they think that applying for a communal land title will take a long time,” Mr. Sarin said, adding that almost all of the Bunong families have had their land measured by the student volunteers.
The move to private titles comes amid a long land-ownership battle between Bosra minority communities and the French-owned rubber firm Socfin KCD.
Similarly, most of the 82 ethnic Tampoun families living in Kechong commune in Ratanakkiri’s Bokeo district also accepted private titles earlier this month, hoping to safeguard their land from firms that have been granted economic land concessions nearby, said Sal Vansay, director of the Indigenous Communities Support Organization (ICSO), which advocates for the rights of 33 minority groups living in the province.
“Economic land concessions pressure the communities; they have no choice, they have to accept the private land,” Mr. Vansay said.
Even members of minority groups well on their way to receiving communal land titles—a long and complicated process that requires registration with the Rural Development Ministry, legal recognition by the Interior Ministry, and finally issuance of the title by the Land Management Ministry—have now taken private land titles.
Since the Land Law was created in 2001, 88 minority communities have registered with the Rural Development Ministry and 56 have received legal recognition as ethnic groups. However, only three have been issued communal titles to their ancestral land, said Sek Sophorn, national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization.
Though the law was passed more than a decade ago, the first communal titles were granted to an ethnic Kreung village and ethnic Tampoun village in Ratanakkiri province in December last year. A third title was issued to a Bunong group in Mondolkiri’s O’Reang district in March.
Three other Bunong communities in Mondolkiri province have completed the process, and are awaiting communal titles.
Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s Ratanakkiri coordinator, said that more than 100 ethnic Kreung families in O’Chum district’s La’ak commune asked his group earlier this month to help them initiate the complicated process of applying for a communal land title.
Mr. Thy said that without a collective title, the families risk losing their land to the Vietnamese-owned CRD rubber company.
Complicating the issue, he said, is the fact that student volunteers have urged the families to have their land measured for individual titles instead of waiting for the vague hope of a communal title.
“They are very conflicted,” Mr. Thy said.
“The student volunteers want them to have their residential land and farmland measured, even while they are in the process of submitting documents to get a collective title.”
Neth Prak, a representative of the Bunong community in Mondolkiri’s Bosra commune, said that families who accepted private titles did so because they were told by the student volunteers that having individual titles would not hurt their chance of receiving a collective title in the future.
“Before, all of them wanted community land, not private” land, Mr. Prak said.
“When the students came and explained the benefits of hard [private] titles, and that [they would] not impact the community land, people went to follow the land measuring [program],” Mr. Prak said.
Kors Sok, 34, a Bunong resident of Bosra commune, said the students had confused the matter.
“The confusion came from a comment made by student volunteers who said there was no problem with villagers getting communal land titles, [if they also received private titles],” Mr. Sok said.
Phlang Sin, 52, another Bosra resident said: “Of course, ethnic minority people here think that they will be able to get both, private and communal titles.
“People think like this after being told by student volunteers that the land measurement to get private titles will not affect the effort to get communal titles.”
Yun Mane, chair of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, said that such misunderstandings between the youth volunteers and ethnic minority communities were a concern.
“When the youth groups go to demarcate, some of the community [members] misunderstand,” Ms. Mane said, adding that a 2009 sub-decree on the procedure for registering for collective land titles states that individuals cannot hold both private and communal land.
Tim Sinath, director of the Land Management Ministry’s provincial department in Ratanakkiri, said that the majority of the 541 private land titles to be handed out in the province on December 7 will go to members of ethnic minority groups.
“Although indigenous people are entitled to special rights with communal titles, they are not eligible to get two titles. They get one or the other,” Mr. Sinath said.
In contrast to the three communal land titles issued to minority communities since 2001, more than 100,000 private land titles have been distributed since June nationwide, when the first student volunteers were deployed, according to the Land Management Ministry.
Ty Lattay, head of Adhoc’s land and natural resource section, said that private titles are not as secure as communal titles for minority communities.
“I’m concerned about their capacity [to manage private land],” Mr. Lattay said, explaining that indigenous villagers might be tempted to sell their individual plots in the future, leaving them without a community to even speak of.
If “some of them get the private ones, how can they…ensure their long future life?” he added.