Difficult terrain: A long way to go for indigenous land rights in Cambodia

Indigenous people in Cambodia face an uphill battle to protect their communal lands. Powerful economic interests are gaining ground, and land registration procedures are failing to shield communities from destructive development. Earlier this month, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) released a report “Access to Collective Land Titles for indigenous communities in Cambodia” on the state of the collective land registration system for indigenous communities. The report analyzes the barriers these communities face when trying to protect their land, finding that it is impossible for indigenous communities to complete the registration process themselves without outside assistance.

Land in Cambodia, as in many countries, is a key foundation of society. Land rights provide not only certainty for economic development and investment, but also security for families and communities. For indigenous communities in Cambodia, who have a very close relationship to the land, formal protection for collective ownership of land exists through collective land titles (“CLTs”). This title is specifically designed to protect indigenous communities’ interests. The existence of such customized, theoretically protective laws is remarkable; Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world where such comprehensive legal protections for indigenous land rights exist. But, as is often the case in Cambodia, what appears sufficient and effective on paper is not implemented in reality. As CCHR’s report makes clear, in practice collective land registration has been almost non-existent – of Cambodia’s 458 indigenous communities, only 11 have been able to complete the process and register their collective lands.

Numerous issues with the CLT registration process for indigenous communities were revealed by CCHR’s research, which explain this gap in the implementation of collective land registration. The cost, as mentioned, is very high, up to $20,000 for the first of the three stages alone. Communities require expert assistance for mapping their communal lands, and are also required to draft community bylaws. Communities can also only receive provisional protection of their land rights at the final stage of the application process. This is a major issue as the process can take years, meaning that communities have to fend of competing interests, such as companies seeking to begin logging in the area, for a protracted amount of time.

In the face of these challenges, little is being done to improve the process. Recently The Cambodia Daily reported that Germany had decided not to continue its support of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (“MLMUPC”), who manage the final stage of the CLT registration process. Germany was the last of several international partners that have been assisting the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) in their land reform projects, yet despite Germany’s persistence, repeated efforts at improvements and cooperation have been rebuffed. On the repeated suggestions from Germany that the RGC create an independent land dispute resolution body, the German Ambassador Joachim Baron von Marschall said, “Again, it seems that the government is not yet prepared to have such an institution. This was particularly signaled to us”.[1] The RGC also, according to the Ambassador, ignored repeated calls to have government land registers made public – this was a “political decision” on the part of the RGC.[2]

The implications of this withdrawal are potentially very damaging. In the absence of such international assistance, it is likely that the delays for indigenous communities attempting to register their collective lands will increase.

In response to Germany’s impending withdrawal, a recent press release from the MLMUPC flatly contradicted comments from the German Government, stating that the end of German cooperation “was not due to any failures.” [3]

The attitude of the RGC, and particularly the MLMUPC, is further revealed by their comments made after the CCHR report on collective land titling was launched. The MLMUPC denied that the report’s observations were valid, claiming that the government never allows the any companies violate the land of indigenous communities.[4] The MLMUPC also denied that they had contributed to the report, with ministry spokesperson Seng Loth commenting, “there was no participation from the ministry in providing data”.[5] However, in stark contrast to this claim, consultation with the MLMUPC was carried out in January 2016, as is described in the report.[6] CCHR found this consultation to be informative, and was able to use substantive information from this consultation in the report. To deny the veracity of this report, and by extension refuse to consider any recommendations within it, is tantamount to refusing to acknowledge the problem.

This is a critical time for indigenous land rights in Cambodia as indigenous communities are increasingly experiencing land alienation throughout the country. When indigenous communities lose their lands, they not only lose their livelihoods, but also risk permanently losing their indigenous culture and identity. It is hoped that the CCHR report, including its recommendations to relevant stakeholders, might serve to improve the implementation of the CLT registration process. The human rights, dignity and irreplaceable heritage of indigenous communities are at stake. If this is not motivation enough for the RGC to change its approach and make a concrete commitment to indigenous land rights, it is also notable that land rights issues are a significant cause of protests throughout Cambodia. To resolve land disputes and create effective land rights protection would lead to a more peaceful, equitable Cambodia for all citizens.

Robert Hill, CCHR International Intern

[1] Zsombor Peter, ‘In Frustration, Germany Ends Land Rights Work’, The Cambodia Daily, 04 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1QdMP5y

[2] Ibid

[3] Niem Chheng, ‘Gov’t denies land rights issues’, The Phnom Penh Post, 08 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1Pw0bKP

[4] RFI Khmer video interview with Seng Loth, MLMUPC spokesperson, 11 February 2016, http://rfi.my/1Q33mx1 (in Khmer)

[5] Chea Vannak, ‘Indigenous Community’s Collective Land Still in Danger: Report’, The Khmer Times, 12 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1Pq8t8U

[6] CCHR Report, ‘Access to Collective Land Titles for Indigenous communities in Cambodia’, February 2016, http://bit.ly/1SVlrQw