In perhaps the most comprehensive review to date of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 2012 land titling project, the NGO Forum on Tuesday said the campaign has yielded major benefits, but not without some serious costs—particularly for the country’s beleaguered indigenous communities.
Part of the prime minister’s mid-2012 Order 01, the project aimed to tackle one of the country’s most pressing issues—land tenure—by making a concerted push to measure more than 1 million hectares of public land in order to grant titles to the families living there.
Hundreds of university students were recruited, dressed up in camouflage, and sent across the country to help with the measurements. As of December, 1.2 million hectares had been reclassified and 610,000 new titles handed out.
“Although the implementation of Order 01 did not always run smoothly,” the NGO Forum said in a report launched Tuesday in Phnom Penh, “it is clear that a large amount of land was cut from [economic land] concessions and registered to people who may have previously faced the risk of displacement or land conflict.”
“Despite its successes,” it added, “numerous concerns emerged during the implementation of the campaign.”
Most of the concerns the report raises aren’t new.
The project was plagued from the start by complaints of secrecy, cheating, corruption and electioneering by Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling CPP. And while other NGOs have issued reports on the project, the NGO Forum’s may be the broadest yet—over seven months last year, it surveyed 480 households across six provinces in the country.
“Order 01 raised serious concerns because measurement of communal land required [indigenous] people to sign contracts agreeing to leave their communities and give up their rights to their ancestral land,” NGO Forum director Tek Vannara said at the report’s launch.
Also according to the report, three in four of the households surveyed in communities covered by the project said at least some of the land they got measured was never titled, and half said that some of their land was not measured at all.
The NGO Forum said proper registration procedures were largely followed, though local officials had varying opinions on whether areas wrapped up in ongoing land disputes were to be included in the project, and that disputes involving powerful individuals were rarely touched.
The report says community forests were measured in violation of the project’s guidelines and that there were very few complaints of bribery, though the group admits that such cases may have been underreported.
“Satisfaction levels were relatively high,” the report said, “but inevitably polarized between those who received titles and those who did not.”
Suon Sophat, deputy head of the Land Management Ministry’s cadastral and geography department, who attended the report’s launch, denied long-running complaints that indigenous communities were pressured to give up their hopes of communal titles in favor of the private ones.
“We didn’t force them to register for private titles,” he said. “They volunteered with full approval from the people involved, like the community leaders.”
Mr. Sophat said some 400,000 households have had their land measured under the project and that the government still had 100,000 measured plots to issue titles for, which—when finished—should address some of the outstanding concerns highlighted in the report.
In a prepared statement, however, the Land Management Ministry was far less charitable with the NGO Forum, accusing it of blatant bias for failing to consult with the government on the report.
“Therefore, this report does not weigh all the angles, does not show the truth, and is not independent,” it says. “For this reason, the ministry refuses to accept the findings.”
The statement does not explain what the ministry believes the report got wrong. A spokesman for the ministry could not be reached.