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Can Cambodia’s sites of struggle become sources of hope?

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In Brief

At the beginning of this year it emerged that ANZ, Australia’s banking giant, had helped to finance a 20,000-hectare sugar plantation in Cambodia that involved military-backed land grabs, forced eviction of local farmers, food shortages and child labour, allegedly affecting more than 1000 families.

The agri-business project in question, led by a well-known and well-connected Cambodian tycoon and ruling party senator, is just one of hundreds


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of Economic Land Concessions that have transformed Cambodia’s countryside over the past decade. Such privately held concessions, for agriculture and mining, are now said to cover 22 per cent of the Cambodia’s surface area. At first glance, the concessions appear to offer a much needed win-win for business and human development in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries: investors are virtually guaranteed double-digit growth rates; concessions are held in the long-term, on vast tracts of apparently empty state land; and local people are promised vital employment.

But this development vision is illusory, and even harbours the potential for political unrest, because it is built on the shaky foundation of contested resource ownership, or unresolved property rights.

For agri-business to take root in rural Cambodia’s patchwork landscapes, from which around 80 per cent of the population still derives its livelihood, a great deal of practical and discursive work is required. At a fundamental level, this entails the reorganisation and reworking of property, including clarification of its categories and forms, as well as its rules of access and ownership.

Inevitably, this task of property formation is contested and political in nature. Sprawled beyond the easily mapped paddy lands of Cambodia’s rice-belt is the other two-thirds of the country: a relatively sparsely populated and unruly landscape of savannah, flooded forest, mixed agriculture, fallow and jungle. This poorly understood expanse of ‘forested land’ is largely anthropogenic and has sustained Khmer and indigenous people for centuries, including through the upheavals of Cambodia’s 30-year civil war.

In this setting, customary property rights derive from traditional livelihood activities like shifting agriculture and the collection of non-timber forest products. But these rights are also infused with the complex and dynamic ‘property effects’ of Cambodia’s past, which involved massive human displacement, protracted territorial struggles and a radical socialist abolition of private property. How then does a nascent post-conflict state, seeking growth and stability, make sense of this melting pot of overlapping and evolving resource claims?

Answering this question is not easy. There are multiple possible ‘right’ ways to approach it, each with its own complications.

Facing this challenge 20 years ago, Cambodia entered its post-conflict land reform process. A daunting range of actors, along with their ideas and agendas, were thrown into the mix: well-intended donors, the World Bank, NGOs, international advisors, and an array of variously motivated government officials including decision-makers, law-makers, map-makers, village chiefs and provincial governors. Most of these actors subscribed to the conventional logic that clear private property rights were essential for the efficient functioning of markets, and must therefore underpin Cambodia’s modernisation and economic development. Thus the ambitious multi-million-dollar Land Mapping and Administration Project was born in 2002. Hosted by the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction, with lead roles being played by German advisors and the World Bank, this project initiated the massive task of systematic land titling for the millions of Cambodians whose land occupation and ownership was not officially registered.

As the land reform process unfolded, however, it became subject to political manipulation by the government and its increasingly self-confident rulers. For example, by 2007, it was clear that the land titling initiative had taken on a particular geography whereby some property claims were privileged over others, and the presence of ‘inconveniently’ located people was rendered invisible or simply overlooked in official map-making processes.

Thus, through partial and selective implementation, the titling program was used by the state to achieve its own more self-interested goals, namely: legitimisation and reinforcement of the government’s hold over vast areas of valuable but as-yet-untitled land, including millions of hectares of forest estate, national parks and a range of urban slums.

By virtue of the classification ‘State Land’ these areas became available to investors and elites. Some acquired long-term concessions after paying handsome ‘fees’ to government and ruling party members; others, often government officials themselves, simply grabbed land because they had the power and connections to do so. This deft manoeuvring, conducted under the purview of international donors and advisors, highlights the predatory nature of Cambodia’s current regime. In particular, it shows how state power and authority have been used to facilitate the private accumulation of land and resources by elites.

The fundamental problem here is that the millions of hectares of Cambodian land now appropriated for private interests were not necessarily unoccupied or empty. Just as the peasants of Europe were dispossessed from their land to make way for the market economy, Cambodia is witnessing the alienation of tens of thousands of people from their land and livelihoods to make way for ‘development’, often involving state-sanctioned violence.

Initially, villagers stood by in shock and fear as they lost their land and resources. But in recent years their responses have galvanised into resistance, giving rise to a looming political discontent that was reflected in the dramatic and still-unresolved national election results of July 2013 — perhaps the greatest challenge yet to the ruling party.

Protests over land are now almost a daily occurrence. Some resistance efforts have garnered international attention, for example when indigenous villagers dressed up as ‘avatars’ in Phnom Penh. But most resistance is of the everyday kind: blocking off of provincial roads to create disturbance, delivery of thumb-printed letters to local government officials, formation of village networks to share information and defend land. These dynamics are the visible ‘edge’ of social change in Cambodia, and they will continue so long as the property contests remain unsolved.

Today, ANZ is learning the hard way about the violent and messy underpinnings of property in Cambodia. Donors have also suffered over land issues in recent years: both the Australian aid program and the World Bank have been accused of financing forced evictions through their provision of aid to the Cambodian government. Given this unpredictable environment, where outsiders tend to get their fingers burnt, how should international investors and donors proceed? So far, their actions have involved a fickle mixture of risk-aversion and public relations — strategies that ultimately reinforce the status quo in Cambodia. But what would happen if international leverage and resources were brought to bear differently, for example by nurturing local people’s desire for justice and change? This would be fiendishly complicated; but as a matter of moral obligation, it is well worth the risk.

Sarah Milne is a Research Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the edge in Asia’.

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