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'Room for improvement' in land dispute resolution process

People hold placards as they block a road in Battambang province earlier this month during a protest regarding an ongoing land dispute.
People hold placards as they block a road in Battambang province earlier this month during a protest regarding an ongoing land dispute. Photo supplied

'Room for improvement' in land dispute resolution process

Cambodia continues to lack an effective way to resolve land disputes, which remain a major destroyer of livelihoods for many families, according to a study released by the NGO Forum yesterday.

The study examines 26 sample villages in Battambang, Kampong Speu, Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces, finding that most farmers lack the documents or legal knowledge to fight for their land against better-connected companies with economic land concessions (ELCs) or powerful people connected to the government.

“Based on the findings, three drivers contributing to land dispute are: land claims according to the 2001 land law versus the customary law of possession; inconsistent decision-making by different levels [of government] . . . and the slow process of land titling but high speed of land concessions,” said Tek Vannara, NGOF’s executive director, in a statement.

Most villagers involved in land disputes lose the use of their land temporarily or permanently and their incomes tend to plummet, according to the study. Many others get compensation packages that don’t match the true value of their land.

“Most of the victims’ families received [low] compensation ranging from $35 to $300,” the report’s authors claim. “They cannot use the money to buy new land or start a new career.”

Researchers found that companies and brokers often intimidate villagers, coercing them into taking the small compensation packages, saying that if the villagers refuse, they’ll lose their land and get nothing.

Villagers had also complained to researchers that companies with ELCs try to clear disputed land before the question of ownership is resolved.

According to Hean Sokhum, an independent research adviser who helped conduct the study, 73.2 per cent of all disputes involve ELCs, while 26.8 per cent involve social land concessions.

Close to half of villagers who own disputed rice fields and more than half who own disputed residential properties have no documents to prove their ownership. Many had settled where they could during the chaos of the 1980s and ’90s.

Meanwhile, jurisdiction over disputes is spread across a confusing array of entities, including the non-binding commune councils, the cadastral and administrative commissions, various courts and the National Authority for Land Dispute resolution.

Many complaints go to multiple authorities at once, making it even harder to resolve them. Some of these authorities are not effective at solving disputes.

For example, the cadastral commissions have processed 5,000 cases but solved just over half of them, which demonstrates “room for improvement”, according to the study.

Sor Sophen, who is involved in a land dispute in Battambang, said these disputes often result in homeless families. “The government should solve the land disputes as soon as possible, in order to prevent violence from happening in the future,” he said.

The NGO Forum will submit the study to the National Assembly and relevant ministries in the coming days.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction said he and his colleagues have yet to see the report and would comment after they had time to study it.

Additional reporting by Igor Kossov

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