Cambodian Mine Action Center deminers working in Battambang province thought the land they were clearing would end up in the hands of landless former refugees, who would farm the land to support their families.
But that is not what happened.
Instead, the few hectares in Ou Dambang commune, Sangkae district, wound up becoming a chili farm owned by a Military Region 5 officer.
That incident, in 1996, was a wake-up call for CMAC that the land it was demining might not be going to the right people.
Since then, the government demining agency has been taking steps aimed at making sure the land it demines goes to Cambodia’s poorest, not its richest. But the system is still not fully in place, CMAC does not have full control over land distribution and reports persist that high-ranking government and military officials are grabbing up large chunks of land, especially in Battambang.
How bad the problem is remains unclear. But what is clear is that unless steps are taken to stop land-grabbing, more demined land likely will end up in the hands of powerful provincial and military officials instead of the landless poor it is meant for, analysts warn.
“If we do not think about that, naturally it will become like the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” said Chea Vannath, head of the Center for Social Development, which is holding a public forum today in Battambang town on Cambodia’s thorny land-rights issues.
Chea Vannath said the problem with demined land is part of the larger issue in Battambang, where she said much of the fertile land is now in the hands by large landowners, “usually people in the provincial government.”
Michel Le Pechoux, the senior technical adviser to a new Socio-economic Unit that CMAC has set up to find out who gets demined land, said CMAC is still studying the issue and isn’t sure yet who has ended up with all land cleared in past years.
So far the study, which has covered 62 of the 180-plus minefields CMAC has cleared since it began in 1993, has found “problems” in only 4 percent of the cases, Le Pechoux said. But he said the preliminary findings are inconclusive, because the socio-economic teams have started in areas where there is not a large military presence and where no problems were expected.
The problems ranged from CMAC-demined land being used for a military base to a dispute between villagers and their village chief on how the land should be farmed.
Le Pechoux admitted the potential for land-grabbing is high.
“When you know the military in Cambodia, you can speculate there might be a problem,” he said. “I think it has the potential to be a big problem if the provincial governments, development organizations and demining organizations don’t strengthen their process on how to distribute land.”
CMAC has now started to survey the areas it is to demine before it begins work, coming up with a list of people living on the land and who are to be the recipients of the land. The new system calls for the socio-economic department to check after demining to make sure the intended recipients are still there.
But the system has not been fully implemented yet. And there are reports it might not be working.
For example, one government official reports that the wife of a high-ranking Military Region 5 official flew by helicopter in October into Ping Pong village in Battambang Bavel district and ‘requested’ 200 hectares of land that is now being demined.
The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said land-grabbing, both of demined land and fertile land in general, is increasing as individual military units are ordered to “create self-sufficiency” in the face of economic hard times.
“If our military keeps doing this, where can our villagers go?” the government official asked.
CMAC officials in Battambang confirmed that it was demining in Ping Pong, but they did not know anything about a helicopter and a land deal. As it turned out, CMAC also did not know who the intended recipients of the land are, because the socio-economic unit failed to survey the area before it started work, as the new regulations require.
Who ends up exploiting that land will only be known once CMAC finishes demining and it is turned over to the government for distribution.
In the end, it is not CMAC that controls who gets the land. Once CMAC clears the land, it turns it over to the provincial government, which usually lets powerful commune and district chiefs decide who gets it.
Often, the current system leads to conflict between villagers and local government officials.
Just last month, 30 families living in Cheav village, Ratanak Mondol district, in Battambang, filed a complaint with the human rights group Adhoc, saying that their village chief had ordered them to move off the land they live on, which CMAC is now demining.
So far, the families have not moved, “but they are worried the authorities will force them to leave,” said Meng Ly, an Adhoc representative investigating the case.
The Cheav case also reflects the complexity of land disputes in Cambodia, where decades of war have forced people to flee their land, only to be replaced by new families of migrants. Often, a piece of land can have several families who feel they have legitimate claim to it.
The families now living in Cheav say they have been there since the early 1990s, when the area was still under control of the Khmer Rouge, Meng Ly said.
But there are other families who lived in the same area in the 1980s before they had to flee when the front lines of the civil war came to the area. Now, they are landless displaced persons and want their old land back, especially as it will soon be mine-less.
Adhoc’s Meng Ly agreed the situation is complex. But, he said, “For this, we don’t concentrate on whether the land belongs to the old people or the new people.
“We are looking at the violation of human rights, forcing people to move and confiscating the land….This was not done legally.”
Another common problem seems to be that many recipients of demined land turn around and sell the land. That is what happened in the case of the chili farm in Oh Andong.
When CMAC complained about the case, a hearing was called before a special committee headed by then-co-Minister of Defence Tea Chamrath. Lt Col Keo Saran, deputy commander of engineering in Military Region 5, said he had “bought the land from the people who are poor,” according to CMAC minutes from that meeting. Keo Saran had a bill of sale, so the committee allowed him to keep the land.
There’s nothing illegal about military and government officials buying land. But when the land sold was demined at the expense of the international community, it doesn’t appear to fulfill the mission that CMAC Director Sam Sotha outlined at a June land-use conference earlier this year in Battambang.
“The mandate of CMAC is to clear mines to recover land for poor, landless farmers,” Sam Sotha said according to a copy of the speech he gave at the conference.
The June conference yielded several recommendations, including government-NGO-CMAC collaboration in planning the ownership and use of demined land. However, none of the suggestions have been acted on yet.
Major Keith Moody, senior technical adviser to CMAC in Battambang, envisions a new model, based on one now used by Norwegian People’s Aid. Under this system, provincial and military officials collaborate with the NGO and the demining group, and before demining begins they all agree—in writing—who will get the land.
The designated recipients draw lots for their plots and are required to sign a document saying they will not move or sell the land for five years.
“It means [the recipient] cannot sell the land—and no one can coerce him to,” Moody said last month, adding that he intended to present the NPA model at today’s land issues conference.
Chea Vannath said the government must make a commitment to a new land-titling and distribution system quickly.
“I think they need a nationwide measure or plan to do that,” she said. “If not, we will see human exodus from the provinces to the city because they are deprived of their land. It’s very dangerous in a society when we have very, very rich people and very, very poor people.”
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