Faced with widespread evictions and opaque private sector deals, activists in Cambodia are calling on the government to be more open and transparent about land concessions, beef up mechanisms for resolving land disputes, and abide by the rule of law.
"Land security, land tenure, is not there," Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), told IRIN in Phnom Penh.
"A handful [of people] will always be fearful that their land will be grabbed. I think that is an insecurity that needs to be addressed."
Land rights remains a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge banned private property in the late 1970s in their effort to establish an agrarian society, destroying scores of land documents in the process.
It is estimated that at least two thirds of Cambodians, many of them poverty-stricken farmers, lack proper deeds to the property they live on. Over the past decade thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes, while others have fallen victim to land-grabbing.
During this time of rapid economic growth, and with more growth forecast, there has been increasing demand for land in this largely agricultural country of about 15 million people, and rising land tenure insecurity, experts say.
In 2012, 232 people - including land activists, community representatives and those resisting forced eviction - were arrested in relation to land and housing issues - a 144 percent increase over 2011, when 95 people were arrested and 48 were detained, a report by the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said in February.
Since 2003 some 400,000 people have been affected by land grabbing and land disputes in Phnom Penh and 12 other provinces, says rights group Licadho which has been mapping one of the major sources of friction and disputes - economic land concessions (ELCs).
According to ADHOC, the government had designated at least 2,657,470 hectares as ELCs (concessions for agro-industrial development) to private companies as of late 2012 - a 16.7 percent increase on 2011.
In September 2012 the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in which he said ELCs were "benefiting a minority" in an investment climate where companies operate behind a "veil of secrecy".
"Cambodia needs to open up its natural resource sector and stop conducting business behind closed doors...."
"It is often unclear who is benefiting financially from land used for urban development, economic and other land concessions, and large-scale development projects."
Land concessions have had a destabilizing effect. People living on land leased to private entities - including indigenous communities - have been nudged out of their localities, sometimes from nominally protected areas.
Moreover, community consultation and impact assessments are often deficient and kept confidential, if conducted at all, and inadequate compensation and resettlement has compounded the problem.
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia, told IRIN there were cases of rural concession areas being logged for valuable wood and then left untouched, while other slated projects - such as the contentious development of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake - have stagnated after residents were evicted.
"When those developments take place they've got to be done properly," he said, adding that Amnesty was concerned about the rights of those living in areas earmarked for development.
Rights groups have largely welcomed a moratorium on the granting of new ELCs, a review of existing concessions, and a nationwide land-titling programme announced by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in June 2012 to stem the number of disputes. According to ADHOC, official data states that by the end of 2012, more than 71,000 land titles had been issued through the programme.
CCHR's Ou Virak said the government was paying attention as resistance to forced evictions had stiffened, but he feared recent initiatives would be short-lived. "They will probably go back to business as usual [after national elections in July]," he said, adding that the government's land-titling scheme was currently only operating in non-disputed areas.
Josie Cohen, land campaigner for UK-based watchdog group Global Witness, told IRIN the political classes in Cambodia are complicit in land grabs.
"Senior Cambodian Peoples' Party (CPP) senator-tycoons are involved in many of the country's most high-profile and controversial concessions," she said.
Lawlessness around land deals prompted unscrupulous investors to take advantage of corruption and the weak rule of law, while responsible investors could not compete with those "cutting corners" and disregarding social and environmental concerns, she said.
"What we need is strong government regulation making it a requirement for investors to disclose [information to the public]."
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan told IRIN allegations of government complicity in land-grabbing were "baseless" and, if necessary, people could take disputes to court.
"The CDC [Council for the Development of Cambodia] calculates the impact - economic impact, cultural impact and the other impacts - of land concessions," he said, adding that the government was attempting to complete a public map detailing land ownership by the end of 2013.
Call for greater transparency
Despite welcoming government initiatives in 2012, observers remain concerned about the absence of freedom of information laws, weak implementation of legislation and the opacity of institutions ostensibly in place to deal with land disputes.
In his report, UN Rapporteur Subedi acknowledged the complexity of land rights, given the Khmer Rouge's abolition of private property between 1975 and 1979 and internal migration, but said this did not justify continuing and often violent evictions.
Subedi recommended that the government release information about concessions - including proposals, bidding processes and lists of active concessions, state land and protected areas - to make the sector more transparent and participatory.
Impact assessments should be conducted and publicized before concessions are granted; people should be consulted on resettlement where eviction has been deemed legal; and analysis should be undertaken on the revenue and benefits flowing to the population from concessions, he said.
In a statement to the UNHRC in September 2012 Sun Suon, Cambodia's ambassador to the UN, said the government was attempting to address land issues, and the premier's land titling scheme would result in about 1.2 million hectares of land being demarcated and allocated to around 350,000 families.
A lack of transparency around land deals and scant access to information are roadblocks to reforming the land sector.
Global Witness's Josie Cohen said crucial information was often inaccessible or incomprehensible to affected communities. She added that there was an incomplete list of ELCs on the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries website.
"Cambodia needs to open up its natural resource sector and stop conducting business behind closed doors which allows a corrupt elite to capture supposedly state-owned resources," she said.
Judicial reform needed
Amnesty's Rupert Abbott said judicial reform was key to addressing impunity in the land sector and the government needed to explain to people the roles of various dispute mechanisms.
"We can see that the courts rarely do anything about perpetrators of human rights abuses and yet on the other hand are used to silence those communities calling for more equal development," Abbott said.
A key issue with land management is a failure to properly implement the law, says Taryn Lesser, coordinator of the Land and Housing Rights Unit at OHCHR in Cambodia.
"Cambodia's laws are relatively well developed: For example, they provide for a clear and transparent process for dealing with the reclassification of land, for handling disputes and for managing expropriation," she said, adding, however, that a weak judiciary and ineffective implementation of the law contributed to the problem.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.