Phnong minority villagers in Mondulkiri province, who have long feared they could be divided and swept off their land by powerful elites, breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when their communities became just the fourth and fifth in Cambodia to ever receive communal land titles.
Communal titles were granted to two communities from O’Chra and Gaty villages in Keo Siema district’s Sre Preah commune, comprising over 70 families.
Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim took the occasion as an opportunity to hand out gifts of money, kramas, salt and other small items after formally declaring the two communal titles, which total more than 1,000 hectares.
“Providing land titles to indigenous communities is the way to protect their land and also help those people use their land to support their daily living and develop their community too,” he said in a speech.
The titles fall under the 2001 Land Law’s provisions for communal land titles designed to address the specific needs of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities, including their practice of slash and burn farming.
But while the legal provisions are solidly in place, a burdensome application process coupled – at times – with pressure from local authorities to apply solely for individual titles has made the titles a rarity. The adoption of a sub-decree in 2009 sped up the process.
But even with improved measures in place, it wasn’t until the very end of 2011 that the first collective land titles were distributed, and titling continues to move at a snail’s pace.
At times, indigenous communities themselves have been torn between members who have sought a communal title and others more interested in individual titles. But Lev Kroeung, a 63-year-old Phnong man from O’Chra village, said his community realised that companies could manipulate them if they didn’t band together.
“If we get individual land, it is easy for a company to take it, because people will sell that land, and sometimes we have no power against them. If we have the community land, we have a strong voice,” he said.
For the Phnong villagers in Sre Preah, who returned to the area in 1979 after they were relocated to a nearby district by the Khmer Rouge, the land has a special significance because it contains their traditional burial grounds, and because they believe important spirits occupy its forests.
Gaty villager Kheung Preung fears that powerful businessmen would obliterate their cultural heritage – as has happened in many parts of the northeast – said the “hard title” had mollified community concerns.
“This land title not only means that our land is protected, it also [means the] conservation of our traditions and culture,” he said.
Tim Coulas, a land administration expert from the Canadian-funded Cambodia Land Administration Support Project, which has worked to implement communal titles and systematic land registration, praised Cambodia for permanently addressing minority claims.
“Other countries in the area tend to offer registration of rights to the land, which are of a specific duration of time, and after that duration of time they have to reapply for the rights again,” he said.