Many Cambodians lack land of their own. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith
A Cambodian scheme to redistribute land to the poor is drawing criticism from expropriated farmers, writes Francis Deron in Le MondeWednesday March 11th 2009
Le Monde (France)
"Whereas the vast majority of farmers had their own plot of land 20 years ago, nowadays about one-fifth of the rural population is totally destitute, owning nothing whatsoever" - World Bank official
Day breaks in a village in Kompong Cham province, Cambodia, east of Phnom Penh. The paddy fields are deserted. Women are busy with the washing, but everyone is watching the family heads who have gathered around a map of the village and its surroundings showing the plots of land in the draw.
An official with a megaphone takes a chit from a box and reads out a number. The men, sitting cross-legged on the ground, look anxiously at the number they have been allocated, though they must surely know it by heart. Finally the official announces the name of the winner.
This strange procedure is part of the Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development (Lased) programme. With help from the World Bank and the German Organisation for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the Cambodian government is giving eligible families land that cannot be transferred for at least five years. It is up to beneficiaries to build a home on the plot and make a livelihood there. Initially, some 8,000 families will be involved.
Of course that is a very small number compared with the masses of Cambodia’s landless peasants, estimated at half a million by the World Bank – but it is a start.
There is nothing new about the problem of land ownership for peasant farmers but it has become an explosive issue in Cambodia. In the 1960s the nascent Khmer Rouge movement played on land shortages to drum up support for the Communist insurrection that helped overthrow the regime of the former king, Norodom Sihanouk. Publicising the current scheme sends the message that the government is looking out for the landless.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the disappearance of officials and public records, confusion surrounded the redistribution of land as private property. To complicate matters further, tens of thousands of people were gradually returning from refugee camps. Much of the land was seized by those with power or influence. Estimates suggest that less than 1% of the population took control of 20% to 30% of the land in that first wave of privatisation, which started in 1991.
"Whereas the vast majority of farmers had their own plot of land 20 years ago, nowadays about one-fifth of the rural population is totally destitute, owning nothing whatsoever," says a World Bank official.
Many of these people had to sell their land, often illegally, to pay for the high cost of medical treatment when family members were injured by landmines in the fields. Until recently in Cambodia, explosive devices left over from 30 years of insurrection and war were still maiming or killing people, at a rate of about 1,000 victims a year. Some families might have lost their only buffalo, depriving them of the means to farm their land. They would have had no option but to sell and find work as seasonal farm labourers.
Only families with per capita earnings of less than 50 (US) cents a day qualify for the Lased programme. Launched in 2003 it concerns publicly owned land that local authorities are required to give up as "social land concessions".
However, the scheme has been unevenly deployed. Nine out of 20 provinces have complied, five others are still hesitating and Prey Veng, a densely populated province bordering on Vietnam, has announced it has no available land.
Rapid population growth has not helped, more than doubling numbers in some districts that were already hard pressed to feed everyone 20 years ago. Many plots lie fallow too, but demand far outstrips the political determination to exploit such land.
Protest movements by expropriated farmers, backed by Cambodian and foreign human rights organisations, are increasingly common. They have recently started taking their complaints to court. They have not had much success so far, but the rising number of cases prompted the prime minister, Hun Sen, to threaten to disband the authority in charge of settling land disputes on account of its inadequate results.