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Land subdecree on agenda

Land subdecree on agenda

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090424_02.jpg

But new edict on indigenous land titles could evade key issues, say NGOs.

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SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

Phnong minority women return home after hawking goods to tourists at Bou Sraa waterfall in Mondulkiri province.

THE government could soon pass a subdecree enabling the indigenous land rights protections contained in the 2001 Land Law to become a reality, but local rights advocates say the proposed draft will likely offer little in the way of  protection.

At the annual conference of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction on Thursday, Minister Im Chhun Lim said the Council of Ministers would meet the next day to examine the proposed subdecree.

The 2001 Land Law grants protection to indigenous communities, stating that "no authority outside the community may acquire any rights to [their] immovable properties".

But no subdecree enabling registrations of indigenous land has yet been passed, making such communities particularly vulnerable to exploitation and land grabs.

Im Chhun Lim said the proposed subdecree would enable land to be registered on a "collective" basis but that individual land registrations would not be permitted, in line with restrictions laid down in the Land Law. Once registered, he added, land would not be able to be sold.

"Under this subdecree, [communities] can only give community land to members who wish to leave, but they cannot give any land which is owned by the state," he said.

But indigenous rights activists are unsure whether the current draft has addressed concerns raised about an earlier version of the subdecree.

"We [feel] that the subdecree will be useful to regulate the Land Law, especially the articles dealing with the registration of indigenous land," said Ngy San, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum.

But he said a copy of the most recent draft had not yet been distributed to NGOs working in the field.

"The final draft has not been shared," he said. "We don't know whether the comments of communities were included or not."

Unresolved concerns

Mark Grimsditch, a legal adviser for international rights group Bridges Across Borders, said the old draft raised a number of concerns, including a provision (Article 7) that communities could only receive land titles once outstanding land disputes were resolved.

Given the vulnerability of indigenous minorities to land grabbing, he said, this created "a significant barrier to the registration of communal land".

Another problem, Gramsditch said, revolved around the "right" of individual indigenous people to leave their communities and take a piece of communal land with them.

"The Land Law does say that individual members who want to leave the community may be able to obtain private ownership of a piece of land based on the traditional authorities and decision-making mechanisms of the community," he said.

But he said the subdecree went further, reinterpreting this as a "right", which could have the effect of legitimising sales of indigenous lands to outsiders that are otherwise illegal.

Sek Sophorn, a national project coordinator for the International Labour Organisation, who said he heard there was "not much change" from the older draft, raised similar concerns that the right of individuals to sell land would undercut communal land ownership.

"We are concerned that if everybody in the community has the right to leave, it will give an opportunity for outsiders to come and talk to individuals," he said.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he could not comment on the subdecree's status until after Friday's meeting.

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