Titling Project May Have Hurt Poor, NGOs Say

The World Bank’s ambitious land-titling project might have actually left poor Cambodians more vulnerable to land disputes and forced eviction, according to a report released today by a trio of housing-rights NGOs.

“Untitled: Tenure Insecurity and Inequality in the Cambodian Land Sector,” a report from Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, and Jesuit Service Cambodia, makes the case that some of Cambodia’s poorest communities were excluded from receiving land titles under the Land Management and Administration Project.

“The fact that these households do not have title is often used against them as a justification for eviction, despite the fact that many have documented rights under the law,” the 82-page report said.

The credit agreement that launched LMAP specifically stipulated that “areas where disputes are likely” should be excluded from the titling process.

LMAP’s exclusion of communities living on disputed land, “has arguably left urban and rural households that have been unable to access the new system, despite having possession rights, with weaker tenure and further exposed to accusations of being illegal ‘anarchic squatters,’” the report read.

Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm and Group 78 communities—evicted this year to outrage from housing-rights groups and international observers—were both cited as examples of communities that might have been negatively affected by the titling process.

The report states that there were problems with LMAP’s process for identifying and registering state land and expressed concern over the apparent absence of promised legal services to communities affected by land disputes.

The Council of Ministers abruptly canceled the LMAP program at a meeting on Sept 4, four months before its scheduled end. At the time, the project had already ex­ceeded the goal set out at its inception in 2002 of issuing 1 million land titles by the close of 2009.

Prime Minister Hun Sen later said that the government had ended the program because the Bank was too “bossy.” “[The World Bank] makes complicated conditions, make things difficult, so we’ve stopped it,” the premier said of the LMAP program in a speech on Sept 7.

In contrast, World Bank Country Director Annette Dixon said in a statement that a detailed review had found the program lacking in issuing land titles to people in poor urban areas where land disputes are frequent. “We have shared the findings of the review with the government but could not come to agreement on whether LMAP’s social and environmental safeguards should apply in some of the disputed urban areas,” Ms Dixon said.

David Pred, director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, said at the time that the World Bank and Cambodian government reached an impasse over eviction and resettlement of the Boeng Kak lake community, whose homes were deemed to be on state land that is now leased on a 99-year term to local developer Shukaku Inc.

In a press release accompanying the “Untitled” report yesterday, Mr Pred pointed to the classification of state land as one of the biggest problems with LMAP. “The mismanagement of state land has negatively impacted the poorest Cambodians most,” he said.

According to the report, “there is no adequate and functioning system of state land management in Cambodia, which is of serious concern…. The procedure for reclassification of State land lacks transparency and is being implemented selectively, leading to large tracts of land being leased or transferred to private interests on a regular basis.”

The report went on to point out that a key component of LMAP was meant to be the contracting of an NGO to provide legal assistance for poor communities affected by land disputes. That never happened, it states.

“In the absence of meaningful access to a dispute resolution mechanism, communities involved in land disputes are increasingly turning to advocacy and direct action to challenge displacement and land-grabbing,” the NGO report stated.

“In reaction to this trend, community leaders and activists are increasingly being charged with criminal offences, such as defamation, incitement, disinformation, criminal damage and assault, often with little or no evidence being produced against them.”

In a series of recommendations for any future land-titling project, the NGOs wrote that priority should be given to issuing titles at relocation sites for evicted residents like those from Phnom Penh’s former Dey Krahorm, Group 78 and Borei Keila communities.

“We are aware of only a few relocated communities that have received land titles,” the report said.

Neither Sar Sovann, director of LMAP at the Ministry of Land Management, nor World Bank spokesman Bou Saroeun could be reached for comment yesterday.

Land Management Ministry spokeswoman Nonn Theany dismissed the NGOs’ criticisms yesterday and said that the government will continue to provide a land-titling service, at a fee of 100 riel per square meter in urban areas and 10 riel per square meter in rural areas.

“[The NGOs] can say anything; it is within their rights, but we are just going to continue with our plan,” she said.

Ms Theany added that the government was only following the conditions of LMAP in avoiding issuing titles in disputed areas.

“We can issue land titles only on the land that is not disputed. We cannot do it on the disputed land unless the dispute is solved first,” she said.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap justified the decision to exclude disputed areas from LMAP yesterday. “It doesn’t mean that we did this to impoverish people. We avoided disputes to try not to make it more complicated,” he said.

In a further blow to LMAP, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel officially registered a complaint about the program from an unnamed Phnom Penh community on Thursday, according to a registration notice posted on the panel’s website. That complaint is now being evaluated for eligibility under the panel’s mandate “to address the concerns of the people who may be affected by Bank projects.”

According to a copy of the complaint, obtained earlier this month, the request for inspection was made through COHRE on behalf of the Boeng Kak lake community.

“As Boeng Kak residents were unable to transfer their customary rights into formalized land titles under LMAP, the project not only failed to formalize their tenure but in effect also degraded their pre-existing tenure status,” the complaint read.

 

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