1st July 2012
Last Friday, 29th June, The Cambodia Daily reported that student volunteers are to be deployed to measure land as part of an ambition land-titling programme announced by the Prime Minister. Intended to reach all villagers living inside land concessions and state forests within the next six months, the 734 students are meant to spend the next two months measuring approximately 350,000 hectares of land occupied by around 100,000 rural families in eight provinces.
Dressed in military uniforms and divided into 61 groups, they will fan out to assist 486 local land and cadastral officials from the Land Management Ministry as well as 281 provincial officials. Once finalised, the data will be sent to the PM for approval to privatise the state land where the villagers live and issue them legal titles.
At least, that is the theory. So far the government has had a very mixed record on instituting property rights – to say the least.
A large part of the problem goes back to the Khmer Rouge period, who outlawed ownership of private property in 1975 and followed this by destroying most of the land titling records. During this period and its immediate aftermath, large numbers of people moved around the country, either into new areas or back to their original provinces where they squatted on any land they could find. Many have remained where they settled ever since and understandably regard the land they have developed or farmed as their own.
In the first decade of this century, the World Bank (WB) funded a Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) to implement a systematic land-titling programme in the urban and semi-urban areas of Phnom Penh municipality and Siem Reap district, as well as other urban areas in the country to try and formalise the existing arrangements as well as remedy the inevitable disputes that arose.
The project was based on property rights theories that people are more likely to invest resources in productive activities when they are confident that they, or their heirs, will enjoy the benefits in the future. In particular, the project owned its genesis to the theories of Hernando de Soto – popular at the time – who argued that the poor in developing countries actually possess substantial assets, albeit in forms of “dead capital” and that governments should provide property ownership in the form of legal titles so that the poor can use this as collateral to raise credit for investment both in their own property or in small business, leading to significant reductions in poverty and improved well-being.
One million titles were to be issued during the first phase (2002–07), but the project quickly ran into trouble when it came up against other government “priorities.”
Eventually, after accusations that the Bank itself was simply contributing to the problem rather than solving it, an investigation in 2009 by a WB Inspection Panel found its “operational policies had been breached by the failure to enforce implementation of social and environmental safeguards” tied to the failure of the system in regard to the Boeung Kak lake debacle. However, when the Bank tried to force the issue, the Government responded by abruptly cancelling the programme, citing the Bank’s “complicated conditions” as the reason for its decision.
In many ways this dispute represents diametrically opposed development models as well as the divergent interests of the government and subsistent farmers, or poor people occupying what has become valuable urban real estate.
In Thailand, for example, over half the population live and work in agriculture but the sector makes an increasingly smaller contribution to the national economy. In fact, many families in the countryside live on hard-scrabble farms where they eke out a subsistence but increasingly earn cash off the farm. Without scale, most of these farms are uneconomic and their owners pay nothing in tax to the central authorities but, as citizens, are demanding more and more in the way of services. Consolidation of farms whereby surplus rural labour migrates to find work in factories has failed to ameliorate the situation or promote efficiencies in farming practice.
Here in Cambodia, the government – as well as many ordinary Cambodians – sees agriculture as a linchpin in the economic development of the country.
“Land and cultural resources are the two major potentials Cambodia possesses (which) can be used to develop the country,” according to Im Chhun Lim, the Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. So “there should not be a question to why Cambodia” uses its large tracts of land “for attracting investors for developing (the) country.”
However, rampant land seizures – especially for commercial development, either for real estate development or for plantation agricultural ventures – are increasingly politically explosive. Economic land concessions have become an increasingly controversial, with the government granting some 800,000 hectares (two million acres) last year alone to well-connected private firms, according to local rights group Licadho, and the displaced appear increasingly willing to confront armed police, soldiers and security guards: a combustible mix.
The area granted for land concessions rose six-fold between 2010 and 2011, and a further 300,000 hectares have been leased already this year, Licardo says. Such concessions typically involve clearing forest land for plantations to grow cash crops such as rubber, cassava, oil palm and sugar cane on 99-year leases.
While the figure represents only around 5% of the country’s entire land area, the concessions are usually sited on highly desirable arable land, such as on red volcanic soils, or just happen to include valuable stands of trees. Frequently these grants have put the new owners into direct conflict with locals that have regarded the land as theirs, despite having no formal land titles.
What the whole scheme has clearly demonstrated is that in countries like Cambodia where the threat of eviction is tangible, the possession of a land title is highly valued.
Back in early May, the Prime Minister has announced a moratorium on issuing new leases for economic land concessions, following an outcry earlier this year, saying the government would take back land from any firms that breach their lease by “cutting trees to sell, without developing the economic land concessions… and grabbing villagers’ or community land”.
This apparent turn-around came as a surprise and has been greeted with scepticism in may quarters, especially as the government has continued to hand out further concessions. The premier insists that these were simply deals that had already been done prior to the government’s change of heart.
In December 2011, the Tumpoun people in Ratanakiri Province became one of the first three such communities to receive land titles for their territory, under a new pilot scheme funded by the Danish Agency for International Development (DANIDA) aimed at protecting their way of life and identity.
Mind you, giving title to individual families in cultures that have traditionally practised communal ownership is itself controversial.
Indigenous peoples like the Tumpoun make up around 3% of Cambodia’s population and are among the most vulnerable groups in Cambodian society have increasingly come under threat from deforestation, mining and agricultural businesses. The scheme, in operation since 2005, has focused on three provinces with the highest population of indigenous peoples: Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Preah Vihear.
Whether this represents a sea change or is merely a ploy to store up support for the CPP out in its rural heartland is too early to tell. How the circle is squared without a repeat of the Thai situation is also still hard to see.