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Despite Warnings, No End to Land-Grabbing in Cambodia


Soaring property prices have resulted in an explosion of land-grabbing in Cambodia, leaving tens of thousands of people destitute. A recent United Nations report accuses the Cambodian authorities of allowing a wealthy elite to illegally grab land, but the government denies the accusation and says it is trying to stop the practice. Rory Byrne reports from Phnom Penh.

The report by the U.N.'s Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia says that land-grabbing has "a devastating impact" on the poor. It says that almost 15 percent of the land in Cambodia is now owned by a tiny elite.

The roots of the problem can be traced back to the Khmer Rouge, who ended private land ownership in the late 1970s. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, many people settled on land without having title to it. Disputes arose when the economy started growing and land became valuable. Rights activists and small farmers say developers and influential Cambodians are ousting poor people from land they have lived on for decades.

The government says many disputes arise because the poor sell their land and then illegally occupy state-owned or private property. Chum Bun Rong is head of land-dispute resolution at Cambodia's National Land Authority.

"They have a problem of a lack of money for spending so they have to sell their land and after that they become, you see, the squatter," said Rong. "They live somewhere - sometimes they live on public land. They stay, or build houses, along the sidewalks or the roads, the main road in the city sometimes, but those lands belong to the state."

Yeng Virek is the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, which provides legal aid to victims of land-grabbing. He says the government, which sometimes expels people from the land they live on, ignores the rights of the poor in the interests of development:

"Sometimes the authorities just claim the area as state property, or they need the area for beautification of the city, for example, and, on that ground, they evict people," he said.

The government set up a commission to settle land disputes, but critics say it is mired in bureaucracy and corruption. Unregulated development is bad for Cambodia says Kek Galabru, who heads the local human rights group, Licadho.

"I understand that the government would like to develop the country but [to] develop a country you have to do [it] in a manner that everyone is happy - not only the company [are] happy and poor people, vulnerable people, are unhappy," said Galabru. "So that kind of development I think is very dangerous for the country."

Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly warned against land-grabbing, but Kek Galabru says there has been little improvement:

"When you listen to the statement[s] of the government, especially of [the] Prime Minister, it seems that he understand[s] the importance of the issue because he always threat[ens] his ministers saying, 'if you don't solve this problem, it will be a big problem in Cambodia - maybe we are going to have instability' - he said, but I don't know why it didn't work," he said. "Where is the obstacle? What level? As it's not transparent, we don't know why the national authority cannot solve the problem."

Dispossessed families are often moved to makeshift camps, many without clean water, sanitation or medical facilities. Kek Galabru says losing their land leaves people unable to feed their families.

"Eighty percent of Cambodian people, they live in the rural area and they rely on the land for agriculture, so if you take the land from them it means they have no way to solve the problem of living," sadi Galabru. "Without land, you condemn them to a death."

Andouang is a relocation camp about 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh. It houses about 1,200 families evicted from Sambok Chap, on Phnom Penh's riverside. Most are still waiting for new plots they were promised last year. Conditions at the camp are bad, with bamboo or plastic-sheeting providing little shelter from the monsoon rains. Some residents suffer from malnutrition and disease.

"Living conditions are very bad because I have no way of making money here for my family - I have four children," said Sony, who has been living at the camp for over a year. "My husband has disappeared and has not come back for me. I have no proper shelter - only a plastic sheet, and no income at all."

Denty came to Andouang with his wife and baby last year. After losing his home, Denty lost his job because he cannot afford the cost of traveling to work.

"Living conditions are terrible. I got very sick after I came here - my wife is sick also - and I was not able to work construction any more," he said. "When I came here we had no proper shelter - only a plastic sheet - and we could not get adequate medical treatment. My wife could not give breast milk to our baby anymore, and I didn't have any money to buy milk to feed the baby."

The government says it is doing what it can to settle land disputes and to help the landless. But officials say they need foreign aid to help prepare land titles and create a computer system to maintain records.

Kek Galabru says that political will is needed if the issue of land-grabbing is to be solved.

"First of all, strong political will from all the leaders, all the ones who have the power to solve the problem. And then, second point, I think we have to empower the existing institution[s]. And implement the land law. Another thing also - the problem of [the] judiciary," he said. "The judicial system is really weak, not independent, so drastic reform of that judiciary is also very important."

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen told aid donors he would take steps to distribute illegally seized lands to the landless and to help with titling. But with Cambodia's economy expanding at about 10 percent a year, the value of land will continue to rise. Experts say that, without strong measures to prevent it, the problem will continue to grow.

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