Land and Natural Resource Alienation in Cambodia
March 8. 2007
Land is the repository of memory and keeps traces of the past in the absence of a strong written tradition. It is perceived as an open book from which anyone can read and learn about local history: place names, old roads, legends and stories attached to places. For local people, bulldozing the landscape is seen as erasing their history, and disturbing social organisations and traditions – Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South, December, 2006.
Ask any Cambodian what s/he considers the foundation of society and life in Cambodia and the answer is likely to be “land.” As in most other places, land is an extremely important economic resource or asset in Cambodia. Land is livelihood. But equally, land is valued as an emblem of rootedness, belonging and stability, and is widely regarded as the very basis of social organisation in the country. A family’s attachment to its piece of land has particular significance in a society that over the past hundred years has been through successive periods of civil conflict, war, massive displacement, forced collectivisation, genocide and sudden entrance into an unregulated capitalist market economy.
Today, at least a third of Cambodia’s peoples-rural and urban–are being systematically alienated from their lands, homes and livelihoods. In many instances communities are losing lands and access to natural resources because of economic and demographic pressures. But equally, people are being dispossessed from their lands by those with political power and money. This is made possible by a combination of factors: economic opportunism by the country’s elites and their external allies and their impunity from legal action; ambiguous land laws; a judicial system that is hostage to political and financial power and unable to protect the rights of citizens; short-sighted economic development plans that seek to usher in private capital at any cost, and; shocking apathy by bilateral and multilateral donors and creditors, who are willing to turn a blind eye to massive land and resource thefts.
This paper attempts to provide an overview of the growing crisis of land and resource alienation in Cambodia. The paper is based on secondary data, travel and observation in the Cambodian countryside, and personal interviews with representatives from rural communities, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and research organisations.
Read the full report at Focus on the Global South. Below is an excerpt…
How People Lose Their Lands
One reason for growing landlessness and land inequality is increase in demographic pressures on small land areas. Cambodia’s population grew rapidly from the 1980-s on, but the areas under agricultural cultivation grew at a much slower rate. In 2001, the total area under agricultural cultivation was actually less that that in the 1960-s.xi A lot of agricultural and forest area was covered with land-mines starting from the KR period in 1975, making both cultivation and forest clearing risky. After lands started to be cleared of land-mines in the 1990-s, some of the most fertile and plum agricultural and forest lands were immediately claimed by wealthy businessmen and their political allies in Phnom Penh. Unbridled foreign investment in areas such as tourism, manufacturing and agri-processing, and unregulated forest and land concessions further limited the agricultural land available to rural communities. Even when communities did try to expand their farmlands by clearing new forests, chances were that they would be dispossessed of them by businessmen from outside colluding with local and provincial authorities.
At the same time, the population dependent on agriculture has continued to increase and many more people have had to be accomodated in either the same, or even smaller areas of agricultural land. Demographic pressure also increased in the 1980-s and 1990-s because of large numbers of people returning from refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Upon return to their original villages or arrival in resettlement areas many did not receive land because it was either already in use by another family, or covered by land-mines, or contested by multiple claimants. While many families sub-divided their lands for relatives and offspring-thus resulting in smaller plots and greater inequalities in land holdings-many also sold their lands and sought other employment in commercial plantations, nearby towns or Phnom Penh.
One of the main causes of land loss is distress sale of land because of ill health, rising medical costs and indebtedness. Health related indebtedness has been cited in several rural communities as the most important cause of distress land sales.xii Since public health systems are poor, people are forced to use private health services which are expensive. To raise money for medical care they either sell part of their land or borrow from local moneylenders. Rural communities by and large do not have access to affordable credit in times of sickness, crop failure or other unforeseen emergencies. Despite a surge in NGO run rural micro-credit programmes and privately run micro-finance institutions, rural families are usually unable to access emergency loans or loans for agricultural production with low interest rates and favourable repayment terms.xiii Some families even take on second loans to repay the first loans and fall into classic debt traps where most of their incomes go towards repaying old debts. Crisis struck families either sell parts or all of their lands to better off families in their areas, or to business entities from Phnom Penh.
Another important cause of growing land inequalities and landlessness is speculative purchases by those with extra cash. It is widely acknowledged that the benefits of Cambodia’s transition to a market economy have gone primarily to those based in Phnom Penh and other large towns. Given that options for cash investment are limited and that land values are rising as a result of de-mining and transportation infrastructure, it is common for the newly rich to invest in land and sell it a later time for a higher price. Speculative purchases are also made by private companies with the ostensible purpose of developing tourist resorts and infrastructure, and by companies that win economic concessions for plantations (see the section below on concessions).
One of the most common ways for rural communities to lose their lands is through land grabbing by wealthy and powerful individuals and private companies. According to Chan Sophal, a highly respected researcher and analyst in the country, “From 1992-2003, rich people seized forests and sold timber; now they are seizing land and selling it.”xiv Most rural families do not have legal land titles or certificates that assure them of security of tenure. Individuals and families with money and political connections are able to purchase fake and backdated land titles and certificates that “prove” their legal claim to specific plots. Often, the person making the claim is a person in authority such as the village or commune chief, or a well connected functionary from the district or province, and is supported by the local police and courts. Although Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces are considered to be “hot-spots,” land grabbing is happening all over the country and many researchers believe that the situation is as bad in Pursat, Kompong Cham, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
A particularly shocking case of land grabbing is that of Kbal Spean village in Poipet Commune in Banteay Mancheay Province, near the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1999, a person who identified himself as the headman of the village claimed ownership of 51,214 square metres of land in and around the village. He said that he had cleared and cultivated the land and that current village residents had occupied the area illegally. Despite the fact that none of the villagers even recognised this man and the fact that his claims contradicted existing laws on land use and the size of land-holdings, he was granted possession of the land by the Provincial Court. The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of five villagers in March 2005, who were shot by armed security forces instructed to evict the villagers and implement the court’s verdict.xv To date, the criminal case about the killings is still languishing in the provincial court, the land conflict has yet to be resolved and community residents have been given lots of land too small to make a living by.
Land grabbing is also common in areas given over to economic land concessions, most of which are granted without clear demarcations between concession and village lands. Over time, concessionaires start encroaching onto village agricultural lands and claiming them as part of the concession agreement. Since villagers do not actually know how much land has actually been allotted to the concessionaires and many do not have titles to prove their use and occupancy rights, they are easily robbed of their lands. Reports have also started to come in from across the country that Forestry Authorities are “reclaiming” forest lands that have been converted to agricultural lands for several years now. It is evident to villagers and local observers that forests will not grow back on these lands anymore. The common wisdom is that the Forestry Authorities will hand this “reclaimed” land over to private companies as economic concessions.xvi
Land is also being lost by the urban poor at alarming rates. Despite the fact that many families living in Phnom Penh’s squatter communities have legal papers that permit them to occupy these lands, they are now being evicted. The most well known of these evictions are in the riverside settlements of Sambok Chab and Village 78 along the Tonle Bassac river in Phnom Penh. The area has been declared “public state land” by the Municipal Authorities and all residents are being resettled to two areas 22 km outside the city. The evicted communities were not consulted about the change in classification of the lands they have been living on for years, nor were they offered adequate and fair compensation. Human rights organisations claim that the area in question has high real estate value and will be handed over to private developers for luxury housing and recreation facilities. By declaring the area as “state public land,” the government and private developers will be able to squirrel out of paying the residents the market price of the lands, which is their due.
These evictions and resettlements are being carried out with a tremendous amount of intimidation and violence. The Sambok Chab evictions were carried out by hundreds of police and military police forces with automatic weapons, electric batons and tear gas. The evicted residents were moved to a water logged site 22 km away with minimal shelter, no electricity, and no water sanitation and facilities. Evicted families are severed from their jobs and livelihoods in Phnom Penh and have to travel large distances for health and education services. Some of those evicted are HIV-positive patients and need to take regular anti-retroviral drugs which they are now unable to get because of the distance they have to travel to the hospitals where they are being treated. Reports have even started coming in of deaths among the elderly and sick because of hunger and malnourishment.xvii
In most cases of urban evictions and rural land-grabbing, there is clear evidence of collusion among highly places government officials, law enforcement authorities and business elites. However, no legal action is taken against them because of their political connections. In fact, those who make decisions about so-called economic development in the country are also the main land and estate speculators. Despite the tag of “development” that often accompanies these take-overs, there is little evidence of development several years down the road.xviii
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