A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 3 July 2016

Time to sow the seeds of land reform in Cambodia

26 March 2015 EAF
Author: Alice Beban France, Cornell University

While the majority of Cambodians live off the land, access is precarious. Recently the Cambodian government has been making some encouraging reforms, but troubling signs remain.

Rapid, unregulated development with unclear property rights has left an estimated 770,000 people affected by land disputes. Smallholder property claims are pitted against companies with Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), long-term leases that allow for the development of land for industrial agricultural purposes. Development programs awarding private communal land titles have so far done little to stem the tide of disputes.

New land disputes continued to erupt in 2014 and there have already been reports of new urban eviction threats in 2015. The central problem is the opacity of the land sector. It is unclear whether or not the recent ELC cancellations are meaningful because there is almost no public data available for state land boundaries, titled areas, or agribusiness investment.

In a pre-election land titling push in 2012–14, thousands of university students were sent around the country to survey and title land to more than 600,000 land owners occupying state land. The government has promised that titling will continue in 2015 under the auspices of the Department of Land Management. In Cambodia’s chaotic post-conflict scramble for resources, land titling has long been held out by the government and donors as key to quelling disputes and spurring investment.

But, a growing number of reports link Cambodia’s land titling campaign with land grabbing and deforestation, particularly in indigenous communities. An alarming number of people whose land was surveyed by the student volunteers are still waiting for their land title. Seventy-four per cent of people whose land was surveyed between 2012–14 are still waiting for at least one title according to an upcoming nationwide report from the NGO forum. People whose land was passed over and left untitled by the student measurement teams are worried.

In the wake of the titling campaign, some people have sold land under pressure from powerful urbanites buying up large swathes of land. These deals fly under the radar of government and CSO monitoring. In Ratanakiri, northeast Cambodia, land sales have continued inside an indigenous community awarded Communal Land Title. The logic of promoting the collateral potential of land title for farm investment is also questionable in a country with high amounts of rural indebtedness and a high-risk banking sector.

A lot more than land title is needed to provide land security in Cambodia. Titles, community training and stakeholder meetings provide nicely packaged quantitative data for donor agencies but the real outcome measurement remains: are people still losing land?

Some innovative approaches to tackling this question have emerged, including exposing the roles of consumers and investors tied to increased commercial land pressure. The Blood Sugar Campaign, targeting European and US sugar buyers, has encouraged the European Union to launch an investigation. A new report exposes the illegal timber trade satisfying Chinese demand for luxury timber and the International Finance Corporation (IFC, part of the World Bank) is currently investigating a complaint about an IFC funded rubber company filed by sixteen upland communities.

Community activists have become more closely linked nationally and regionally. Donors are realising the need to move beyond brief technical fixes to more long-term support for legal and community empowerment. Discourses linking land rights with food security and the need for dignified farming livelihoods are also growing.

But activism is limited by ongoing intimidation and harassment including the imprisonment of Boeung Kak lake activists for blocking traffic, frequent reports of harassment, attempts to buy off community activists and NGOs, and the recent refusal to extend the visa of a foreign activist. The National Assembly is quietly debating draft media laws that will restrict freedom of speech, agricultural laws that may restrict farmers’ crop choices and includes punishments for those who do not abide by the rules. There is also a controversial NGO Law requiring greater government oversight for NGOs. These regressive legal maneuvers may affect the ability of communities and NGOs to fight for their land.

Cambodia’s experience with the student-led land titling campaign shows that ‘big man rule’ can accomplish a massive amount in a short time. When Hun Sen speaks, people listen. Cambodia’s ruling regime is built on land as a political tool. Land is distributed to elites to bring them into the orbit of the prime minister and facilitate the private accumulation of national resources. Land title is given to poor people as part of pre-election campaigning.

The challenge for the government now is to use this big man power to create long-lasting change rather than short-term political gain. This requires more than gifting land titles or confiscating under-performing or already logged land concessions. Fundamental changes to social policy are needed that see land not as a political tool but as a livelihood.

Alice Beban France is a PhD Candidate with the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University funded by an award from Fulbright-Hays.  

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