REPORT: Land Situation in Cambodia in 2013

In May 2012 Prime Minister Hun Sen issued Directive 001 (also known as Order 01BB) on ‘Measures to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of management of economic land concessions (ELCs)’ announcing a moratorium on the granting of new ELCs, the review of existing ELCs and the implementation of the so-called “leopard-skin” (or “tiger-skin”) policy, with the aim to allow communities to live side by side with the concessions. In the framework of the implementation of Directive 001, a new land registration campaign was implemented by youth volunteers to speed up the process of land registration, which had been previously carried out, often ineffectually, through sporadic or systematic registration systems.

After the issuance of Directive 001, the number of newly granted ELCs dropped dramatically. While in 2012 at least 2,657,470 hectares of land was granted to private companies[1], in 2013 no new ELCs were issued. On the contrary, government sources reported that more than 330,000 hectares have been seized from ELCs in order to be redistributed to the people[2]. However, the terminology used in Directive 001, which “provisionally” suspends the granting of new ELCs, is concerning. This suggests the government’s lack of engagement in a long-term commitment to the suspension of ELCs, allowing the granting of ELCs to be resumed at any time. Moreover, issues relating to existing ELCs have not been addressed, especially with regard to the disclosure of comprehensive information on ELCs. This is problematic when assessing the effectiveness of the implementation of Directive 001 as it is difficult to determine whether the government effectively complied with point iii) of the directive, which states that the government “shall seize ELCs where companies/concessionaires that have already been given agreement from the Royal Government of Cambodia have not complied with the existing legal procedure or contractual obligations[3]”. Despite the reduction of newly granted ELCs, in 2013 ADHOC registered 29 land dispute cases related to ELCs[4], the majority of which were concentrated in north-eastern Cambodia, where rubber and other cash crops are commonly grown.

In 2013, according to data collected by ADHOC, 485 Social Land Concessions (SLCs) were granted for a total of 626,823.26 hectares, against the 38 SLCs totalling 100,790 hectares granted in 2012. The government reclassified and donated land to the rural poor over the course of 2013 with a peak in the first six months of the year, coinciding with the run-up to the election on 28 July 2013, which cast a shadow over the government’s efforts as it indicates the policy was executed for political gains. Indeed, out of 485 Sub-Decrees, 429 were issued between January and June 2013, while only 56 between July and December[5]. In the month prior to the National Election, a record number of 159 SLCs (averagely 5.3 per day) was reached.  Moreover, there is concern that measures taken to implement the SLC policy could actually worsen the situation for vulnerable families and aggravate landlessness as corruption, mismanagement and serious abuses have been reported in relation to SLCs.  Firstly, procedures and criteria set out in the Sub-Decree 19 on SLCs have often been disregarded, in particular with regard to community consultations, with the result that in several cases land transferred to SLCs was already claimed by other people or was already in the process of being registered as Indigenous People’s (IPs) collective land. Secondly, given that more than 60 per cent of the arable land in Cambodia is concentrated in the hands of private companies, land available for re-distribution is limited. As a consequence, large portions of forest covered areas, including protected areas and wildlife sanctuaries– already heavily encroached by ELCs and illegal logging activities – have been re-classified as state private land in order to provide ownership to citizens[6]. Moreover, it is difficult to assess whether the land has effectively been redistributed to the people or if these SLCs exist only on paper. A study should be conducted in order to assess whether the land actually reached the target recipients, and impacts of SLCs on local residents should be further analysed.

The first phase of the land titling program – during which reportedly 660,000 plots were measured and 380,000 titles were issued – was completed in June 2013, one month before the national election. The government announced that during the second phase, which resumed in November 2013, the volunteers would measure 50,000 hectares of land. While generally welcoming the effort made in order to ensure tenure security, ADHOC reiterates its concerns, already raised in its 2012 report[7], regarding issues such as lack of transparency, accountability and the absence of an effective dispute settlement mechanism associated with Directive 001. Disputed areas have been left outside the scheme and media, NGOs and donor partners have been prevented from sufficiently monitoring and evaluating the operations. With no external monitoring, abuses and corruption are commonplace. Moreover, the land titling campaign does not address the situation of those indigenous groups that seek to obtain Collective Land Titles (CLTs). The government should urgently address these issues and redouble its efforts to expedite that process in every way possible. Indeed, “[c]ustomary rights held by IPs have been one of the easiest targets for land-grabbers. One common form of land grabbing has been the acquisition of lands that were within the known domain of subsistence farming communities but lying fallow (and thus apparently unused)[8]”. Directive 001 has further facilitated this process through the institution of small-scale ELCs, which have been used as a mean to regularize the arbitrary occupation of the land seized from IP’s territories. ADHOC is concerned that land originally intended to be included in CLTs will be lost by the time the registration process is finalized.

According to ADHOC, more than 770,000 people (equal to almost 6% of the total populations) have been adversely affected by land grabbing from 2000 to 2013.

In 2013, ADHOC handled a total of 135 cases of land disputes affecting a total of 36,864 hectares and 6,488 families. The conflicts were concentrated in the north and north-east of the country, with Rattanakiri, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap the most affected provinces. Out of these 135 cases, 97 cases were land grabbing cases, 29 were related to ELCs[9], 2 to SLCs, 6 to forced evictions and one related to fisheries. ADHOC registered a 48 per cent increase of land conflicts compared to 2012 (when ADHOC handled 70 cases of land disputes affecting a total of 101,408 hectares and 10,689 families). This indicates that victims of land rights abuses are less afraid of speaking out and are more willing to approach NGOs to seek assistance. However the total size of disputed land was smaller than previous year. This could be due to the fact that ADHOC handled a high number of cases related to disputes between private parties or between private citizens and various public authorities; the fact that no new large-scale concession was granted could also explain the reduction of land size. In the first three months of 2014 ADHOC registered 37 new land disputes, affecting 2,617 families equal to at least 6,470 individuals for a total land size of 5,451.516 hectares.

Evictions are still all too frequent in Cambodia and affect hundreds of communities across the country. Despite having possessory titles or fulfilling the criteria for requesting definitive titles of ownership[10], thousands of individuals are facing the threat of eviction or have been evicted with inadequate compensation (if any) to make place for city beautification projects, commercial and residential developments, large scale infrastructure projects, and extractive industry concessions. When relocation measures were taken, evictees have often been resettled at isolated sites akin to slums lacking basic services such as clean water, sanitation, electricity, schools and health care facilities Victims of land grabs have few meaningful avenues of redress because of the wealth, power, political-connections, and/or the corrupt interests of those involved. Evictees who seek remedies and protest are often threatened, harassed or coerced to accept sub-standard compensation, or are prosecuted through spurious criminal charges, most typically criminal incitement, defamation, destruction of property and disinformation.

Natural resources in Cambodia are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since 1973, Cambodian forestry cover has dramatically reduced from 72 per cent to 46 per cent, with the percentage of dense forests cover having dropped from 42 per cent in 1973 to 11 per cent in 2013[11]. According to a recent report, Cambodia has the fifth-fastest deforestation rate in the world[12]. Information gathered by ADHOC shows that in 2013, the government issued 86 decrees reclassifying protected areas to state private land for ‘provision of right of ownership to citizens’, for a total of 93,143.093 hectares of land. Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary was the most encroached area with 26,893.90 hectares seized. Protected areas and community forests are further under threat from illegal loggers. The Cambodian government should urgently take measures to preserve Cambodia’s unique natural resources and make serious efforts to curb deforestation in order to halt what has become an outright plunder of Cambodia’s natural resources for the benefit of tycoons and politically connected individuals.

2013 has seen little progress with regard to access to justice for victims of land rights violations. Land conflicts have been marked by court processes biased towards the interests of the wealthiest party, the destruction of villagers’ property and fields, continuous intimidation and unlawful convictions of community representatives and human rights activists. In cases involving significant imbalances of power between the land grabbers and their victims, the latter’s attempts to seek justice have been systematically obstructed by the courts, which in many instances have rejected or refused to process villagers’ complaints on the grounds of procedural reasons and the inability of complainants to pay official and non-official fees to initiate proceedings, which in some cases amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. Crackdowns on peaceful protesters have been frequent throughout the year. Especially towards the end of 2013, there has been a “worrying change from a tolerant to a repressive response of the government to public protests[13]”.

Land activists are constantly threatened and judicially harassed, most typically on charges of destruction of private property, intentional violence, defamation, disinformation and incitement. In 2013 ADHOC registered a decrease in the number of people arrested and detained in connection to land disputes[14]:  109 persons were charged, 43 arrested and 19 imprisoned. In 2012, 232 people had been arrested. This may indicate an attempt of the government to increase its popularity during the electoral campaign. In the first three months of 2014, at least 50 people were charged and arrested and 12 were jailed.

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[1] ADHOC, A Turning Point? – Land, Housing and Natural Resources Rights in Cambodia in 2012, February 2013
[2] This is consistent with data collected by ADHOC
[3] Order 01BB on the Measures Strengthening and Increasing the Effectiveness of the Management of Economic Land Concessions (ELC), 7 May 2012
[4] These cases are related to ELCs granted prior to 2013. However they were classified under “new cases” as the affected communities filed a complaint with ADHOC in 2013.
[5] 41 in January, 29 in February, 51 in March, 74 in April, 75 in May, 159 in June, 1 in September, 3 in October, 42 in November and 10 in December.
[6] By the end of March 2014, the Royal Government of Cambodia claimed to have cut off and reclassified the total area of more than 1 million ha, nearlty 330,000 ha of which is cut out of 124 ELC companies; more than 210.000 ha out of 18 forest concession companies; and more than 480.000 out of state land and forest land confiscated with provincial order, in order to provide ownership to citizens, through 91 royal decrees, 648 sub-decrees, and 681 decision of Royal Government. Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, available at: http://www.mlmupc.gov.kh/?page&lg=en#sthash.aAGMuCbP.dpuf
[7] ADHOC, A Turning Point? – Land, Housing and Natural Resources Rights in Cambodia in 2012, February 2013
[8] USAID, Cambodia- Property Rights and Resource Governance Profile, 2011, p. 8
[9] These cases are related to ELCs granted prior to 2013. However they were classified under “new cases” as the affected communities filed a complaint with ADHOC in 2013.
[10]A survey by the Housing Rights Task Forces (HRTF) interviewing communities facing forced eviction in Phnom Penh showed that 85.3% of the households in threatened communities had bought their house from other person and had been living there more than 11 years. HRTF, Socio Economic Impact of Forced Eviction, 2011, p. 5
[11] Open Development Cambodia, http://www.opendevelopmentcambodia.net/maps/
[12] Study published by the journal Science and conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, news reported by The Cambodia Daily, Zsombor P., Loss of Forest in Cambodia Among Worst in the World, 19 November 2013
[13] Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi, 16 January 2014, available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14175&LangID=E
[14] In 2012 ADHOC registered 232 cases of people arrested in connection to land disputes.

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