Prime Minister Hun Sen's appearance in Mondolkiri earlier this year marked more than
the arrival of national politics to a provincial backwater-it sparked a land rush.
Fences have appeared along roads that once bordered nothing but grasslands.
Dak Dum commune chief Pichaw Brie is concerned about land grabs, but is awaiting provincial action.
And in what has become a weekend tradition, residents from the provincial capital
Sen Monorom head to the countryside to stake out new properties.
In his nationally televised speech on May 18, Hun Sen proclaimed Mondolkiri to be
the "best, most beautiful place in Cambodia", said one of those watching
"It is a place where people come and don't want to leave," the PM reportedly
That has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Land speculation has crept along the
main roads and down smaller routes between the frontier towns and the Vietnamese
border. New guesthouses have appeared, and ambitious plans for eco-tourism are being
discussed by environmental NGOs in the province.
But for now, Mondolkiri remains an overwhelmingly wild place. Although it is the
nation's largest province, it has a population of just 40,000 people. Forest meat
hangs in market stalls. Ethnic minorities, including Kreung, Jarai and P'nong, dominate
Bomb craters evoke memories of the Vietnam War, and fence posts are still strung
with rusty belts of gun cartridges instead of barbed wire. But the sleepy capital
of 8,000 people is awakening.
The newly graded road from Phnom Penh, Route 76, now attracts both the enterprising
and the destitute. Travel time from the capital, almost a full day a year ago, has
been slashed to less than ten hours. Provincial authorities say they are mediating
an increasing number of disputes between rival landgrabbers.
And while land prices soar-some estimates have them more than doubling since April-the
losers may well be the ethnic minority people. In this remote province, where modern
utilities appeared only recently, land rights are still uncertain.
Although most villages remain relatively untouched thanks to their isolation, a staff
member at one development agency in Mondolkiri, asking to remain anonymous, says
encroachment cannot be ignored.
"In the future, sooner or later, [conflict] will happen," he says. "Landgrabbing
is a very big issue. It affects every district and most communes in Mondolkiri. This
could be even worse than Ratanakkiri."
The neighboring province of Ratanakkiri has faced a rash of landgrabs by government
officials in recent years. The most notorious case was that of General Nuon Phea,
who claimed 1,200 hectares of land from hill-tribe people in exchange for bags of
salt. He was eventually forced to relinquish the land.
The development agency official is concerned the situation could worsen.
"I think if we don't strengthen [the commune councils] to address this problem,
they themselves and the people will be the victims," he says.
Hopefully, change is on the way. For the first time, the Ministry of Land Management
(MLM) has invoked the 2001 Land Law to address indigenous land rights. The ministry
will consider offering communal land titles to three ethnic minority villages-two
in Ratanakkiri and one in Mondolkiri-by the end of the year. That depends on whether
a pending sub-decree is approved.
"It's quite a complex issue," says Katrin Seidel, technical advisor at
the MLM. "We would like to see ... if indigenous communities can make informed
Communal land titles represent a radically different approach for the country and
the region. Seidel says the pilot projects will determine how the process proceeds.
The next phase will see it expand into provinces such as Pursat and Preah Vihear.
But some legal advisors say titles should not be seen as the ultimate solution. The
certificates need to be accompanied by land mapping, community development, provincial
level protection and natural resource management.
Seidel says the ministry first wants to ensure that "indigenous communities
really understand what it means to obtain communal land titles. It's fairly important
for them to make decisions and not be influenced," she says.
She adds that preparation is not yet present in Mondolkiri.
In Dak Dum commune last month, about 20 kilometers from Sen Monorom, commune officials
on a tour were shocked to find that outsiders had claimed 21 plots of land. Commune
chief Pichaw Brie, who is an ethnic P'nong, says he is awaiting provincial orders
before he can act.
"The authorities in Mondolkiri will organize the land by law," says Brie,
wearing a battered Cambodian People's Party shirt. He says his hands have been tied
by provincial orders not to issue land titles until the end of the election.
But residents of the province and a local commune official accuse the government
itself of fostering landgrabs. The official says that "government staff, police
and soldiers" have been seizing land and selling it to residents and newcomers
to the province.
Senior provincial government staff are implicated, but local officials say they are
powerless to stop the practice even though they claim to be exasperated with it.
"All land in Mondolkiri is government land, but people go to take the land for
themselves," says Nga Rang Chann, Mondolkiri's deputy governor. He asserts that,
"if the government needs land, the government will take it back."
But Chann admits the government will probably never reclaim the land once speculators
set up farms or construct buildings on the property. Any transfer would then require
intervention by the national government-a possibility officials are reluctant to
discuss. The director for the provincial Department of Planning, Um Khorn, confirms
that stolen land is unlikely to revert to the government.
Such inaction has bolstered the prospects for speculators stealing then selling government
land. The province has also embarked on an aggressive development drive that is fueling
Deputy governor Chann expects "many, many people" to arrive next year once
new road and infrastructure improvements are completed.
"In the future, the government wants more people to live in this province for
building and for farming," he says. "We want more people to develop this
province and we must prepare for them."
But the ethnic minority groups appear anything but prepared. Most place their trust
in commune officials and village chiefs, who are often P'nong like themselves, but
confide they have little choice.
"We are just common people," says Salao Long, 28, a resident of Pou Tiang
village. "What can we do? What can we say to the government?"
Long is worried about people moving near the village and claiming land. But like
most, he believes his peoples' historical claim to the land will prevail.
But since land speculation began early this year, officials have been reluctant to
sort out conflicting claims. Although no serious conflicts have yet taken place between
settlers and indigenous people, there is growing unease.
Pluh Yeahl, 41, another resident of Pou Tiang village, looks around at the surrounding
hills and insists his community already owns the traditional farms and pastures.
"We have a land title," he affirms. But when asked who holds the legal
certificate, he admits the village "has no paper". Instead, he says, the
title came from a different source: "Our great-great-grandfathers gave it to