Youth volunteers taking part in the government’s land measurement program leave Phnom Penh in a convoy
earlier in 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Seven months after Prime Minister Hun Sen unveiled an ambitious plan to demarcate 1.8 million hectares of state land and formally acknowledge those who live on it, the completion of the first – albeit the smallest – of eight affected provinces has wrapped up.
Marking the end of demarcation in the coastal province of Kep yesterday, 684 families who have lived there, in some cases since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, were issued land titles – and can now look forward to a safe future, Hun Sen boasted.
“People were not feeling secure enough to farm land they owned without proper land titles. Therefore, it was necessary for us to resolve these problems,” he said in a speech in Kep’s Damnak Changaur district.
“I hope that by the government legally handing over this land today, people will benefit... and the farmland will become an inheritance for generations to come.”
The prime minister announced the land-titling plan on May 7 amid growing concerns over land disputes, which have ravaged communities across the country in recent years, led to frequent protests in the streets and drawn international condemnation.
The government has measured 388,000 hectares of land and handed over 51,681 land titles since the first batch of thousands of volunteer students, dressed in military fatigues, were deployed on June 28.
The first land measuring came just a day after the release from prison of 13 Boeung Kak lake women who remain in dispute with authorities over 12.44 hectares of land yet to be demarcated.
Hun Sen said yesterday that more than 480,000 families across the country would receive titles, allowing them to farm their land free from the fear of eviction. “We have to encourage our people to have proper land titles to ensure that they have full capacity for agriculture production,” he said.
The Prime Minister initially announced that disputed areas would be included in land to be demarcated, but later amended his comments, saying that only land not in dispute would be marked out.
After initial suggestions that the national land-titling project was the ruling Cambodian People’s Party way of sharpening its image before next year’s election, rights groups have been reluctant to comment in depth about its progress.
Try Chhuon, a co-ordinator for the rights group Adhoc in Kampot province, said yesterday she believed families in Kep who had received titles would be relieved that years of uncertainty over the legality of their ownership had ended.
“I believe that these people having proper titles will prevent land disputes in the future,” she said.
Nicolas Agostini, a technical assistant in the monitoring section of Adhoc, said his organisation welcomed the initiative because it showed that authorities understood the seriousness of the issue.
“But we need the government to work on disputed land, as well as address the needs of indigenous people, who have the right to collect-ive land ownership, not just private ownership,” he said.
A stark reminder that land titles do not always protect residents from disputes and eviction came last Friday, when the homes of 163 families in the capital’s Sen Sok district were destroyed — despite a Supreme Court ruling in the villagers’ favour.
A day earlier, World Bank vice-president Pamela Cox told the Post titling alone was not a solution to Cambodia’s land issues and urged a broader look at how grievances were heard.
The absence of such avenues of appeal and mediation for villagers are of concern to Surya Subedi, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Cambodia.
“When I began my work, one of the issues that needed to be tackled was the judiciary, crucial to upholding people’s rights,” he told the Post yesterday, in answer to whether a resolution mechanism was needed for land disputes.
“I would like to encourage the government to ensure the judiciary is able to command the trust and confidence of people from all walks of life – that is the backbone of democracy.”
Subedi acknowledged that progress was being made when it came to land titling.
“I went to Kampong Chhnang and met with the people there. They were happy and smiling with their land title,” he said.
“This is what I’ve been calling for; this is what the internat-ional community has been asking for – that there should be a program of land titling so we avoid issues associated with that. But, by and large, people are encouraged.”
With assistance from: Bridget Di Certo