Minorities Decry Loss of Land Under National Titling Scheme

Ethnic minority villagers from Ratanakkiri province testified Tuesday to the harm they face at the hands of a nationwide push to furnish private land titles to hundreds of thousands of families living precariously on state land.

The 10 representatives from as many ethnic minority communities gathered in Phnom Penh for the launch of a new report which claims that the land titling project, known as Directive 01BB, has forced them to give up more of their ancestral lands rather than helping them settle their disputes with agro-industry firms moving onto their land.

The report found that of 26 minority communities in Ratanakkiri province that accepted private land titles on offer as part of Directive 01BB, all but one said they ended up disappointed.

While the communities had hoped for communal land titles, which are specifically designed to protect minority lands, the villagers said they were given little choice but to accept private titles.

“If we didn’t accept the private land titles, they threatened us by saying that the company will take our land,” Sal Hoy, a villager from the prov­ince’s Andong Meas district, said at the launch of the report on Tuesday.

“When we asked for a communal title, the authorities said, ‘Do you want Pol Pot back?’” Mr. Hoy said.

When student volunteers arrived late last year to demarcate land in his area as part of the land titling campaign, Mr. Hoy said local authorities pressured the ethnic Tampoun families into taking the private titles instead.

Now, he said, the community has lost much of the land it once considered its own to a rubber plantation.

The seven NGOs who surveyed the communities for the new report found the same story over and over: Families who wanted communal titles felt pressured into taking private ones and then watched the plantations around them move in on their ancestral lands.

“The number [of disaffected communities] is getting bigger as the research goes on because the students are measuring more and more communities,” said Alison Rabe, an independent researcher who helped with the report.

Despite the report’s findings, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, involved in coordinating the titling project, insisted that the private titles were the best thing for the minority families.

“We have to push all the minority people to register for private land titles to protect their land and stop the disputes with the economic land concessions,” said the spokesman, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro.

Mr. Khemro acknowledged that any communal land not covered by the new private titles would go to the companies. “I don’t think this is unfair for the ethnic minorities because they could have lost all their land if the government does not help to cut land from the companies’ concessions” with the private titles, he said.

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