Women wait with their family documents while LMAP officials survey their land in Sambo commune,
Kampong Cham province.
BOU SAROEUN/ WORLD BANK
Land ownership rights represent one of the most critical problems facing communities in Cambodia, in no small part because of the short tenure of formal land ownership in the country’s turbulent modern history.
Private property was abolished by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and was not reinstated until 1989. Even then, many people were not formally awarded land and the vast majority of them did note receive certificates.
The 2001 Land Law was a milestone for Cambodia’s property sector, giving landless Cambodians the right to claim land through social concessions. Those living on land without a title could apply for ownership if they possessed the plot for five years – so long as they were not occupying land that was state-owned and once any third-party claims were resolved.
The law also addressed concerns held by civil society groups, such as permitting communal land titles and offering land concessions to the poor.
A 2002 sub-decree heralded a nationwide land registration system – the Land Management and Administration Program (LMAP) – to issue land titles and register them in a central database.
The program brought land titles under a single authority, replacing a system in which ownership was sanctioned by various overlapping authorities, most often the local Sangkat chief or another municipal official.
The sub-decree also established the Cadastral Commission – a government body to resolve land conflicts before they reached court.
Before the 2001 Land Law, 600,000 land titles nationwide were recognized, according to the Ministry of Land Management.
Under the new system, the ministry, working commune-by-commune at a rate of over 20,000 per month, has issued some 800,000 land titles. Technical and financial support is being provided by the Finish, German and Canadian governments, as well as the World Bank.
Registration of the entire country is expected to take another ten years, according to Peter Jipp, the World Bank’s head officer working with the LMAP.
The program’s registration process is currently active in 11 provinces – Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kampot, Kampong Speu, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Takeo, Prey Veng, Kampong Thom and Sihanoukville – and is about to begin operations in Pursat, Kampong Chhnang and Banteay Meanchey.
Village by village, LMAP teams survey local residents and map out ownership and property boundaries. Once a claim is registered, there is a public notification period of 30 days, during which the claim can be contested.
Mathew Rendall, a lawyer with Phnom Penh-based Sciaroni & Associates, said the 2001 Land Law, which established a “title by registration” system that vests authority over land ownership with the government, is in theory the most efficient system available and the one used by most of the world.
“The main pitfall of the title-by-registration system is possibility of fraud by the state registry,” Rendall said.
The other system, deed registration, used most notably by the United States and Japan, requires proof of ownership through an unbroken chain of title going back to the original owner, and is backed by insurance companies.
While the organizational framework of property titling is improving in Cambodia, land ownership can still be a tricky enterprise, according to Rendall.
“We’ve seen situations where people left their land and someone else would set up a wall around it. This is a legitimate fear,” he said.
“In the past there have been multiple offices dealing with land registry. Due diligence here still isn’t a science. The problem comes about when someone is relying on the old (pre-2001) system.”
Rendall said the national registry is essential for not only Cambodians but foreign investors as well.
“International companies are now buying land for 20, 30, 40 million dollars. In a country where the courts are still weak, they are not going to give the assurance that foreign investors need,” he said.