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Challenges in Tackling Land Issues in Cambodia

ISSUE 2019
No 9
Release 26 June 2019
By Mr. Sim Vireak

As a previously war-torn country where all land registration and documentation were destroyed, Cambodia faces a clear structural challenge in terms of technical management over land titling issues. As the economy grows and with a high influx of capital investment ready to reap benefits from speculation and structural weaknesses of the land management system, tackling land issues is becoming even more difficult.

The Land Law was first promulgated in 1992 and was amended in August 2001. The 2001 amendment aimed to determine the regime of ownership for immovable properties in Cambodia and to guarantee the rights of ownership. The 2001 Land Law states in Article 5 that “No person may be deprived of his ownership, unless it is in the public interest. An ownership deprivation shall be carried out in accordance with the forms and procedures provided by the law and regulations and after fair just compensation in advance.”

Cambodia has a dual land tenure system containing both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ titles. Soft titles apply to land rights that are registered with or recognised by a local or district authority. Hard titles are the strongest form of property ownership provided by the Land Management and Planning office. Under the framework of the 2001 Land Law, a soft title does not confer a right to legal ownership. Cambodia aims to eventually register all 7 million land parcels with a nationally recognised hard title by 2021. By the end of December 2018, around 5.1 million titles were issued, which is equivalent to 73.25% of the total estimated 7 million plots.

In any land dispute, it is extremely difficult to identify who is the real victim. There are conflicts between the poor and the rich as well as conflicts among the rich. For instance, in one anecdote a commune chief certified soft titles over the same plot of land for two different tycoons. When asked why he did so, the commune chief told the court that he had no choice because he was threatened by the two very powerful tycoons. The moral of the story is that even the rich and powerful can become embroiled in land conflict too. In this regard, questions arise as to whom the poor should turn to when their lands are being violated.

In another aspect, the poor are not always the victims. There are some cases where certain individuals exploit public sympathy by labelling themselves as ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable,’ but in fact they are illegal land encroachers who stand by the mantra that, “if you win, you get the land; if you lose, you will get the government’s compensation.”

It is hard to find examples of successful resettlements in land disputes owing to the involvement of many stakeholders. Sometimes the issues and various stakeholders are politicised, demonised and victimised. So far, the settlement for the relocation of people from the ‘White Building’ can be considered as a model for future redevelopment projects, as resolutions were smooth and acceptable to all parties concerned. As such, the land ministry published an 87-page book on the Implementation Experiences of the White Building Redevelopment, detailing the process from the start of negotiations with all 492 families, the agreement between residents and developers to the final stage of the building’s demolition in 2017.

In addressing land disputes, Cambodia should set a uniform, standard formula to address the issues. However, such a requirement is challenging considering that different land locations pose different sets of problems and resolutions, including the size of financial compensation and types of land for resettlement.

Despite many structural challenges and limited capacity, coupled with challenges posed by social, economic and political externalities, many practical measures have been put into place to accelerate the resolution of outstanding land disputes so as to provide justice for the people who are the real victims and to promote social harmony.

For instance, the land ministry has instructed local authorities to halt the verification and certification of ownership transfer documents for any unregistered property that does not have a location map, accurate coordinate system or certification by cadastral administrations. It has called on all authorities to prevent encroachment on all kinds of state land and protected areas and has placed a moratorium on the update of land ownership transfer in areas that have unresolved land disputes.

For a dispute settlement mechanism, with the recent nomination of the Minister of Land Management to lead the National Authority of Land Conflict Resolution, Cambodia now has a single window to address all land disputes.

Regarding economic land concessions (ELCs), a moratorium was put in place in 2012 owing to the understanding that some companies had not conducted investment activities as pledged and only created problems such as deforestation and forced evictions. After the review in February 2016, 23 of the 113 ELCs issued by the environment ministry had been revoked and the other four firms had voluntarily handed their concessions back to the state. The state also pledged nearly one million hectares of re- appropriated property to be handed over to poor families.

Sugarcane ELCs have been at the centre of contentious flashpoints in land issues. In Koh Kong province, two companies, namely Koh Kong Plantation Co., Ltd. and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co., Ltd., were involved, but all the disputes with 986 families were fully resolved. Currently, the land ministry is in the process of issuing ownership titles.

In Kampong Speu province, three companies were involved, namely Phnom Penh Sugar Co., Ltd.; Kampong Speu Sugar Co., Ltd. and Kampong Speu Plantation Co., Ltd. The ministry’s task force has received 3,349 identification information sheets and as of April 2019, nine cases have been resolved, 195 cases successfully negotiated and are awaiting payment and the other remaining cases are under review.

In Preah Vihear province, five companies were involved in disputes with 287 households, namely Land Feng Cambodia International Co., Ltd.; Ruy Feng Cambodia International Co., Ltd.; Heng Yu Cambodia International Co., Ltd.; Heng Ruy Cambodia International Co., Ltd. and Heng Nong Cambodia International Co., Ltd. The ministry has completely settled the disputes relating to 57 cases and rejected the other 230 cases as some have already received settlements, some are not related to ELCs and some overlap with forest coverage or other forms of state public property.

In Oddar Meanchey province, three companies were involved in disputes, namely Cambodia Cane and Sugar Valley Co., Ltd.; Tonle Sugarcane Co., Ltd. and Angkor Sugar Co., Ltd. These companies’ ELCs have been revoked and a complete settlement has been reached for 412 households, which were provided a total of 1,028.37 hectares of land through a social land concession.

Regarding the issue of indigenous communal land registration, it is worth noting that such land registration is not for the purpose of private ownership; it is for collective use/ownership and therefore cannot be used as collateral or security for private financial handlings.

Sub-decree No. 83, dated 9 June 2009, on the Procedures for Indigenous Communal Land Registration requires the establishment of an indigenous community before making requests for land registration. Each community’s ethnic minority group is to be identified by the Ministry of Rural Development and the community shall be registered as a legal entity by the Ministry of Interior. To date, 143 indigenous communities have been identified, among which 137 communities have been registered as legal entities by the Ministry of Interior.

In actual implementation, the procedure for indigenous communal land registration always takes longer than general land registration because indigenous communities’ land parcels are large in size and are located in mountainous areas. Some land boundaries are accessible only through forests as there is no road infrastructure. Land demarcation and boundary marker planting and measurement are time- consuming. In addition, maps need to be sent to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for review and comments before the requests are submitted to the government for land reclassification as private land of the state for communal registration.

Sometimes there is difficulty in reaching internal agreements within communities as certain community members are not willing to register the land for collective ownership. Some communities even demand more land than their actual needs. Sometimes requested land overlaps with forest that is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and are protected areas under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment. Sometimes there are demands for registration for one single title for different land plots that are separated by long distances.

As such, among the 137 indigenous communities that have already been registered as legal entities, only 59 communities have submitted requests for communal land registration. Compared with other countries in the region, Cambodia leads in terms of indigenous communal land registration. Cambodia has 24 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 200,000, equal to 1.5% of Cambodia’s total population. As of May 2019—ten years since the start of indigenous communal land registration— the land ministry registered land for 24 indigenous communities (equivalent to 684 parcels or 22,682 hectares).

Thailand, which has 20 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 1,000,000 living in 20 provinces, has registered land for only four indigenous communities in Nakhon-Pathom and Lamphun provinces. Laos PDR, which has 160 ethnic minority groups with an estimated population of 3,000,000, has registered land for only three indigenous communities. Vietnam, which has 54 ethnic minority groups and number about 14 million, equalling to 13% of the total population, has no collective land registration but has allowed the establishment of forest communities. Myanmar, which has 130 ethnic minority groups representing 30% of the total population, has yet to conduct any indigenous communal land registration. Indonesia, which has 1,128 ethnic minority groups, has registered land for only nine indigenous communities.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.