Economy races ahead, but land-rights turmoil leaves many Cambodians behind

Cambodia’s continued economic growth has seen demand for land grow along with its price. Hundreds of thousands, however, have been affected by state-involved land conflicts – fueled, rights activists say, by disregard for citizens’ land rights.

Peter A. Ford
Meach Mean speaks about squatters living on an irrigation dyke constructed with forced labor under the Khmer Rouge, in Praek Tanoub Village, Cambodia.

The squatters who call this narrow raised strip of red clay home are largely not here by choice.

Some have left behind drought-affected farmland in the country’s south. Others have nowhere else to live, after falling into debt.

The 4.5-mile irrigation dyke, constructed with forced labor when the Khmer Rouge regime controlled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, offered a small piece of free land on which to attempt to rebuild their lives.

Just 45 minutes north by car lies the booming capital, Phnom Penh, where skyscrapers and malls illustrate Cambodia’s ongoing economic transformation: today, the country enjoys about 7 percent annual economic growth, and the number of Cambodians living under the poverty line is steadily dropping. But as land has been bought up, it often comes at the expense of residents’ land rights. Claims to land here are often unclear, in part a legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and the loss of rights is exacerbated by long-term state land leases to business investors, human rights groups say, despite a moratorium imposed in 2012.

Officials tout Cambodia’s growth as a sign of improved living standards, but that “masks the actual distribution,” says Sophal Ear, a Cambodia expert and associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “The authorities have managed to use land rights to give the wrong people the land: tycoons and the powerful.”

Confusion about land rights has combined with agro-industrial development to make alleged land grabs a persistent problem. In what’s touted as a bid for growth, the government has utilized long-term leases of state land to private companies, which now account for almost 17 percent of the country’s land. Some 700,000 Cambodians have been adversely affected by these economic land concessions (ELCs), according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and many more live in legal limbo – like the families in this village.

Most villagers have certificates conveying ‘soft’ land title that are meant to ensure compensation or relocation if the government moves them, but many don’t have the nationally recognized ‘hard’ titles, says Meach Mean, who moved to Praek Tanoub in the mid-1990s. Some long-term residents, however, have neither.

“Everyone has experienced hardship [in Cambodia]” says Meach, now in his 70s. “I wouldn’t want to live on the dyke [with the squatter families], but I understand what may have forced them to live here.”

A roof, but no title

The tree-lined dyke is flanked by a patchwork of verdant rice and lotus fields, and is home to about 50 families, according to long-time resident Hong Pov. She and her family moved here in 1997 after they found themselves unable to meet loan repayments for their fish-farming business. The sides of the dyke provided the only unused land in the area on which to live.

“When we arrived there were 15 families. Now it's 50,” she explains, showing off the home they built four years ago for $2,000: metal sheeting for walls and roof, supported by a simple wooden frame; rough wooden floorboards; and decorated with family photos. Hong is resigned to the fact that this will be her home from now on.

“There is no choice,” she said, as she cannot afford to buy land anywhere. Because her husband has a longstanding illness, she is the family’s only breadwinner, earning less than $15 per week as a pot-washer at nearby weddings.

Unlike villagers, the dyke families lack official titles to the land on which they live, despite many having lived there for at least five years before 2001 – the prerequisite for the land-titling process to begin. Hong, who claims the government only makes an effort to issue land titles in more remote provinces, says she was given a ‘soft title’ certificate in 2005, but cannot locate it.

Village chief Von Pheach stresses that the families on the dyke may continue to live where they are, although provincial authorities have barred any new residents.

However, “they are not landless in the normal sense,” he adds. “Many of them sold their land elsewhere due to debt. They destroyed themselves, and then had to move there.”

Years in the making

Throughout Cambodia, land-rights conflicts stand poised to grow: the continued growth of Phnom Penh means land is at a particularly high premium nearby, with ‘new’ land created by filling the last remaining lakes of this former swamp with sand.

But land rights have been a persistent problem since the Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17, 1975, following a bloody civil war against the United States-supported government. The regime sought to turn Cambodia into a mythological agrarian utopia, and emptied the country’s cities – including Phnom Penh – to achieve this. Millions were moved into the countryside and were forced to construct large-scale farming projects centered around communal living and eating. Money was banned, private property abolished, and all land titles were voided.

The combination of civil war, American bombing, and the executions and forced work perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge not only led to the fragmentation of Cambodian society, but also left as many as 3 million people dead. The regime was removed from power in 1979, but the country’s recovery was hindered the group’s long-running guerrilla conflict, which did not formally end until 1998.

Since then, Cambodia has risen to qualify as a “lower middle-income” country, by World Bank standards, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But if the land concessions known as ELCs – which include sugar cane plantations, cassava processing plants, mines, and tourism attractions – have contributed to that development, they have also compounded land-rights issues.

“With secure property rights for the rightful owners, you could have much higher growth,” says Dr. Ear. “Short-termism has always been a problem in Cambodia. When you think you might lose power, your discount rate is high. The future is worth less than the present.”

Along with resident displacement, ELCs can contribute to deforestation and loss of livelihood: In a country where almost 50 percent of adults work in agriculture, those without land can find themselves exiled to the extremes of society.

“It is not clear to what extent the people of Cambodia have actually benefited from land concessions,” Surya Subedi, the former UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, wrote in a 2012 report, calling for ELCs to be better-documented and land laws better implemented.

Education and enforcement

Five years ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed a moratorium on new ELCs, promising an investigation into existing concessions; the government also began a land-titling initiative. As of 2016, 4.3 million land titles, or 61 percent of total land plots, had been recognized, according to a paper from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Licenses for a number of ELCs found not in compliance with their investment conditions were revoked, but rights groups argue that the government has never published a full list of the agreements.

Much of the problem, rights groups say, boils down to enforcing the law, and better education around land rights. Technically, anyone who inhabited land for five years before 2001, when a land law went into effect, may apply for a title. Most people do not know how to obtain formal documentation, however, according to a 2015 US State Department report, which criticizes an official Cambodian commission for failing to clearly identify state land.

“There has been a lack of political will to respect ownership through occupation and titling programs have frequently fallen far short of genuinely respecting the rights of Cambodians,” says Naly Pilorge, the deputy director of advocacy at local rights group Licadho. Political and economic interests often take precedence, she says, and authorities arbitrarily ignore land laws.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have accused the government of targeting land-rights activists with threats, violence, and arrests, while entire communities have been subject to forced evictions and relocation.

For now, at Praek Tanoub, residents are free to stay.

Retired vegetable farmer Nut Yaen, who was born here seven decades ago, says he would love to have official title, to pass his land onto his children. However, he accepts that that is unlikely. For his day-to-day life, the lack of proof that he legally owns the land on which he has lived for decades does not bother him.

“I like it here; it is my hometown. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Huot Chanpav contributed additional reporting from Preak Tanoub.

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