By Anne Hennings, peer-reviewed by Ratana Pen from Heinrich Böll Stiftung
28 January 2021
Land lies at the center of debates about Cambodia’s socio-economic development. Despite urbanization tendencies, agriculture remains the main source of income for over three quarter of the population. For farmers in the fertile lowlands, private land ownership rights have enabled recovery of their livelihoods after decades of violent conflict. Meanwhile, the resource-rich uplands and border areas have been the site of large-scale land acquisitions for cash crop production and extractive industries.
Customary practices undermine principles of joint ownership in male-headed households and gender-biased norms often prevent women from exercising or claiming their rights to the land.
Cambodia has seen radical political changes throughout its history, with each regime introducing new land tenure systems. After independence from France in 1953, Cambodia’s monarchy recognized private property rights. In contrast, the Khmer Rouge regime abolished private property rights in favor of state ownership (1975-1979). Agriculture was collectivized and urban dwellers forced into the rural areas to cultivate the land. Today, Cambodia has a quite advanced legal framework for land tenure and management. Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) and Social Land Concessions (SLCs) are important pillars of the 2001 Land Law. However, the conversion of public land, displacement, and the lack of transparency and consent remain controversial.
Despite on-going efforts to title and register land, tenure insecurity remains high, particularly among the poor, women, youth, and indigenous groups. In rural areas, landlessness lies at about 20 percent with another 40 percent of households owning less than 0.5 hectares . Besides issues of ownership, ineffective land management, and illegal logging, safety remains a concern in some areas due to landmines. Improving land administration and enforcing existing laws will be critical for Cambodia to continue its rapid economic growth. The country’s rich water resources, forests and the oil and gas reserves may create additional opportunities.
Land Legislation and Regulations
Prior to French colonial time, all land in Cambodia belonged to the King. The notion of land ownership was only introduced under the French Protectorate and was maintained in the post-independence era until the abolition of private property by the Khmer Rouge. The Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 ended Vietnamese occupation formally and established a market economy, leading to the restoration of private land ownership in the 1993 Constitution.
In 2001, the Land Law was adopted, and since then the Cambodian government has made progress in developing regulatory and administrative frameworks for land management and land-related policies. The 2001 Land Law establishes a system for land titling, creates a comprehensive dispute-resolution system, and governs lease rights. The 2008 Land Policy Declaration emphasizes the importance of transparency, equity, and sustainability in land governance in order to achieve poverty alleviation, food security, natural resources and environmental protection, and socioeconomic development.
The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction is primarily responsible for the coordination of land registration and administration, land use planning, cadastral surveying, mapping, and property valuation. In 2002, the government– with donor support – began to systematically classify and register all land parcels according to the categories detailed in the 2001 Land Law. This program aimed to remove uncertainty over land ownership that caused conflicts and tenure insecurity. By May 2019, the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction had registered about 5.2. million land parcels. The titling process is supposed to be finalized by 2021 though there still seems to be a substantial number of undocumented land in some provinces. This is not only a problem of corruption but also exemplifies the limitations in law enforcement in the country .
Land Tenure Classifications
The Land Law recognizes private, state and collective ownership divided into the following sub-categories:
State land accounts for about 75-80 % of Cambodia’s total land area
- State public land includes land of natural origin (e.g. lakes, mountains), land for public use (e.g. railways, airports, roads, public parks), property allocated to provide public service (e.g. schools, hospitals), protected areas, historical sites, registered community forests, and official properties of the Royal Family. It can be leased for up to 15 years but neither sold nor granted as economic or social land concessions.
- State private land, on the other hand, belongs to the state but is not of public interest value. It can be sold or leased, including long-term leases and land concessions for agro-businesses
- Monastery property includes land and structures existing within the premises of Buddhist monasteries. it cannot be sold, exchanged or donated.
- Indigenous property covers land where ethnic minority communities have established their residences and where they carry out traditional agriculture. Unregistered land held in collective land ownership by indigenous communities is considered to be collective property on state public land.
- Private ownership consists of individual ownership, undivided ownership, divisible co-ownership and joint ownership. Only natural persons or legal entities of Khmer nationality have the right to own land 
Tenure insecurity is often linked to disputes over ownership and demarcation . Particularly low-income households possess only soft titles that are not registered at the Land Office. In these cases, households are protected under possession rights (paukeas) instead of the stronger legal category of ownership rights (kamaset). According to the Land Law, everybody has the right to request a definitive title of ownership if they possessed the land peacefully – excluding state public land – for at least five years prior to the law’s promulgation.
Community Land Rights Issues
There are 24 indigenous peoples accounting for 1-2 %of the Cambodian population. By Cambodian law, an indigenous community must show ethnic, social, cultural and economic unity, practice a traditional lifestyle, and cultivate lands under customary rules of collective use. Following sub-decree No. 83 Procedure of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities, only registered communities can apply for community titles. In order to do so, indigenous communities need to obtain a letter of recognition from the Ministry of Rural Development and, secondly, register at the Ministry of Interior. By the end of 2020, 33 titles had been granted to indigenous communities. Indigenous community land typically includes residential land and farmland reserved for shifting cultivation.
Yet, indigenous communities face various obstacles along the application process. Apart from language barriers and traditionally limited participation in national politics, the procedure is lengthy. At the same time, indigenous communities are highly exposed to evictions for agro-industrial projects but also illegal land acquisitions by influential politicians, businessmen, or military officials.
Land Use Trends
Cambodia has remained a mostly agrarian society with only 23.4 % living in urban areas and more than 70 % practicing (rain-fed) subsistence farming. The majority of the rural population lives off fishing, rice and, increasingly, cassava farming. However, the history of granting large-scale concessions dates already back to French colonial rule when land was allocated for rubber plantations.
After the withdrawal of Vietnam in 1989, Cambodia’s constitutional monarchy began shifting toward a market economy and started redistributing collective farmland to returnees, former soldiers, and poor households in general. Facing significant socio-economic transformations, including refugee repatriation, waves of in-country migration, urbanization, economic and population growth, the country has experienced rising inequality. In 2011, almost half of the population had less than one hectare of land for farming whereas 12 % owned more than three hectares.
Despite a lack of reliable data, numbers suggest that (near) landlessness had risen from about 3 % in 1993 to about 25 to 45 % within two decades alone. With female-headed and young households particularly affected, involuntary and near landlessness contributes to poverty and socio-economic exclusion. In most cases of landlessness, families have either been evicted in the context of large-scale development projects including under a sub-decree on Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), households have never completed the registration process, or could not benefit from land redistribution due to corruption.
51% of the country’s land cover is forested. Yet, according to the Global Forest Watch’s database, Cambodia lost 2.2 million hectares – 24% of its total tree cover - between 2001 and 2018 alone. Large-scale agricultural plantations but also small-scale forest encroachment in the Eastern and Northern parts play an important role in diminishing Cambodia’s forests.
The law recognizes short-term leases and long-term leases (15-99 years) of private land. State private land can be sold to private entities (only Cambodians) or transferred through leases and land concessions, which can be awarded in three forms: First, in accordance with the sub-decree No 19 on Social Land Concessions (SLCs, 2003), the state can grant state private land to poor landless families for residential and farming purposes. However, the implementation has been slow due to high demand and rising land prices. More recently, the Prime Minister ordered the Ministry of Environment and others in July 2020 to allocate land and issue titles to poor families who have been living in protected areas for at least ten years. Despite warnings, powerful people and business tycoons have tried to falsely claim ownership in several areas.
Second, the sub-decree No. 146 on Economic Land Concessions (ELCs, 2005) provides a legal framework for agro-industrial projects. ELCs are restricted to state private land only. This means that land must be re-classified as state private land before granting the concession. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries oversees ELCs. The Ministry of Environment is the lead agency responsible for assessing and mitigating potential environmental impacts related to ELCs. Third, concessions can be granted for purposes of mining and industrial development. According to sub-decree No 22, certain procedures must be in place in cases of involuntary resettlement, including payment of compensation. However, these only apply to national investments and for title holders.
In addition, members of the political elite, well-known business(wo)men and high-ranking military officials have acquired large tracts of land often illegally by misusing their positions. On a smaller scale, peasants have appropriated land “by the plough”. This strategy has been of high importance to landless or land-scarce families over the past 20 years, resulting in in-migration into the mostly forested areas towards the borders.
Land disputes centering around land acquisitions are widespread in Cambodia, resulting from the pressure on urban and productive agricultural land, lack of accurate land records and maps, and the absence of land use plans. These conflicts are mainly located in the (north)eastern upland areas, in Phnom Penh and around Tonle Sap Lake. Disputes arise between the state and ordinary citizens due to land expropriation for public infrastructure. Either occupants refuse to give up their land or they do not agree with the compensation offered. Second, there are numerous conflicts between Cambodians and private companies or powerful individuals appropriating land for their personal benefit.
If disputes arise, the conflict parties usually turn to the Cadastral Commission at first. While district officials are responsible to investigate the conflict, cases may be referred to a higher level if high-ranking authorities or business(wo)men are involved. However, most complaints to the commission remain unresolved or rejected. In a next step, the parties may proceed to submit a court case. Yet, many peasant families lack the knowledge and/or resources to take their complaints to court or have no formal documents to support their claims.
Within a few years close to 2 million hectares were granted to domestic and international agribusiness companies as ELCs by 2012 – equivalent to more than half of the country’s arable land. In addition, more than 700,000 hectares were allocated for industrial mining purposes and another 300,000 hectares for hydropower projects. Most investors are from Cambodia, followed by China and Vietnam.
Most concessions do not comply with the law regarding public consultations, social and environmental impact assessments, or compensation. Many were allocated on indigenous land and observers found that in some cases legally protected areas were reclassified. In other cases, business(wo)men have used multiple companies to circumvent the 10,000 hectares ELC limit. Transparency has remained an issue at all stages.
In May 2012, after much criticism, the Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a moratorium on new ELCs and cancelled a handful of concessions that did not meet the requirements. Order 01 on Measures for Strengthening and Increasing the Effectiveness of the Management of Economic Land Concessions also called for a review of existing concessions. Since then, over 1 million hectares of forest land leased by private companies has been put back under government control. According to a statement by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, at least “370,000 hectares of land have been cut out of ELCs from 134 companies and more than 250,000 hectares of land have been cut from state-owned land and seized forest land.” The Land Matrix lists 156 signed contracts for mostly (non-food) agricultural purposes, i.e. rubber, acacia, cassava, and sugar cane, and 11 failed land transactions as of June 2020.
In contrast to their size, ELCs only contribute little to Cambodia’s economic development. Much more, large-scale land acquisitions appear to be the main driving force behind growing inequality in land access and challenge land tenure security. Not only do ELCs (as well as mining concessions and hydropower dams) result in displacement and facilitate land disputes, but also negatively affect food security and self-sufficiency. Today, Cambodia shows one of the highest rates of land inequality in Asia.
Women’s Land Rights
Legally, the Land Law guarantees equal rights to land for men and women. However, female-headed households as much as women in male-headed households face various constraints with regard to land. On the one hand, women-headed households received less land and of lower quality during the redistribution in the 1990s. Also, those families are more likely to be landless. On the other hand, customary practices undermine principles of joint ownership in male-headed households. That said, gender-biased norms often prevent women from exercising or claiming their rights.
Bearing the negative consequences of land acquisitions and displacement in the name of development, many affected women have risen up in spite of their lower social status and a deeply ingrained cultural image of female domesticity. By incorporating urban and rural female activists, land activism underwent a re-framing process in Cambodia in the past decade. However, while the associated physical, financial, and mental risks for female activists are mostly overlooked, their enhanced role in reducing violence in protests against land grabs and eviction is overrated.
Generally, the government addresses issues of gender inequality through the Gender Mainstreaming Action Plan. Yet, land issues have not been directly addressed by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)
The VGGT guidelines were translated into Khmer in 2015 . Moreover, various national government officials from relevant ministries, working on agriculture, land, forestry, the environment and fisheries, have engaged in dialogue as part of the Mekong Regional Land Governance Initiative. In 2018, an FAO workshop aimed at creating awareness on tenure governance and provided an opportunity to discuss the application of the VGGT in the country. Further steps will be discussed in late 2020.
Timeline - milestones in land governace
1975-1998 Civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime
All land and property were collectivized under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Furthermore, the vast majority of the population lost or left their homes as a result of forced ruralization and forced migration.
1993 Restoration of private ownership in the constitution
For the first time since 1975, the individual right to own property and land was enshrined in the constitution.
1990s (Post-conflict) Land redistribution
The government as well as the Khmer Rouge leaders in the three remaining strongholds allocated 5 acres on average to soldier families, returning refugees, and Internally Displaced People.
2001 Promulgation of the Land Law
Sponsored by the World Bank, the Land Law became a cornerstone for large-scale investments and urban development. Land ownership solely depends on the central cadastral registry.
2003 Sub-decree No 19 on Social Land Concessions (SLCs)
SLCs shall provide land with titles to rural and urban land-poor or landless families across the country.
2005 Sub-decree No. 146 on Economic Land Concessions (ELCs)
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries may grant concessions on state private land in order to promote agro-industrial investment.
2012 Moratorium of ELCs
After much (international) criticism of concession-related cases of eviction and losses of livelihoods and forests, the Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a moratorium on ELCs.
By 2025 Completion of demining process
Government authorities estimate that the country will be free of land mines and other unexploded ordnances by 2025.
Where to go next?
The author's suggestion for further reading
Neef et al. provide a detailed analysis on Economic and Social Land Concessions.
For a different take on land deals and female activism see Hennings.
Watch a video on Cambodia and the VGGT (link is external).
Author & Acknowledgements
This work is an update of an earlier narrative prepared in 2017 by Open Development Cambodia. The update was written by researcher Anne Hennings.
 Diepart, J-C. 2015. The fragmentation of land tenure system in Cambodia: peasants and the formalization of land rights, Country Profile No.6: Cambodia, Technical Committee on Land Tenure and Development https://landportal.org/node/93251
 Cambodia Constructors Association, May 2019. Land registration nationwide to be completed in 2021. 6 May 2019. https://landportal.org/news/2020/07/land-registration-nationwide-be-completed-2021
 Long Kimmarita. 2020. Huge tracks of undocumented land a concern for registration officials. Phnom Penh Post. 2 June https://landportal.org/news/2020/07/huge-tracks-undocumented-land-concern-registration-officials
 Colchester, M. and Chao, S., eds. Agribusiness Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in South-East Asia (London: Forest Peoples’ Programme, 2013), 7. https://landportal.org/library/resources/eldisa65451/agribusiness-large-scale-land-acquisitions-and-human-rights-southeast
 Sub-decree No. #129 on Rules and Procedures on Reclassification of State Public Properties and Public Entities, 27 November 2006, Article 16 and 18. And Sub-decree on Community Forest Management 2003, Article 3.
 Sub-decree No. #118 on State Land Management, 7 October 2005, Article 4.
 Sub-decree No. #118 on State Land Management, 7 October 2005, Article 20-28
 Sub-decree No. #118 on State Land Management, 7 October 2005, Article 10.
 Subedi, S., Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Addendum: A human rights analysis of economic and other land concessions in Cambodia (United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 21st Session, 11 October 2012), 9. https://landportal.org/fr/library/resources/report-special-rapporteur-situation-human-rights-cambodia-addendum-human-rights
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 Land and Housing Working Group - Cambodia. 2009. Land and Housing Rights Report in Cambodia: Parallel Report 2009. COHRE Asia and Pacific Programme. https://landportal.org/library/resources/land-and-housing-rights-cambodia-parallel-report-2009
 Kresek, Kai. 2019. What’s happening in Cambodia’s forests? Global Forest Watch. https://landportal.org/node/93253
 See here, for example: https://opendevelopmentcambodia.net/tag/illegal-land-encroachment/#!/story=post-135231
 Khorn Savi. 2020. Minister tells governors to speed up land allocation. Phnom Penh Post, 7 July. URL: https://landportal.org/news/2020/12/minister-tells-governors-speed-land-allocation
 Voun Dara. 2020. Koh Kong confronts encroachment on protected state land. Phnom Penh Post, 22 November. URL: https://landportal.org/news/2021/02/koh-kong-confronts-encroachment-protected-state-land
 Government of Cambodia. 2018. Sub-Decree No 22 on The Promulgation of the Standard Operating Procedures for Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement For Externally Financed Projects in Cambodia. URL: https://www.mef.gov.kh/documents/laws_regulation/LAR-SOP-Final-13032018.pdf
 See Global Witness. 2016. Hostile Takeover. The corporate Empire of Cambodia’s ruling family. London. https://landportal.org/library/resources/hostile-takeover-how-cambodia%E2%80%99s-ruling-family-are-pulling-strings-economy-and
 Diepart, Jean-Christophe. 2015. The fragmentation of land tenure systems in Cambodia: peasants and the formalization of land rights. Country Profile No. 6 Cambodia. GRET/ AGTER. Paris, 17.https://landportal.org/node/36094
 Law of Expropriation. 2010. Article 4.
 Neef, Andreas, Touch, Siphat & Chiengthong, Jamaree 2013. The Politics and Ethics of Land Concessions in Rural Cambodia. J Agric Environ Ethics 26, 1085–1103 https://landportal.org/library/resources/politics-and-ethics-land-concessions-rural-cambodia-0
 Figures on mining and hydropower concessions are based on Open Development Cambodia datasets.
 Land Matrix. 2019. Large-Scale Land Acquisitions Profile: Cambodia. 7. https://landportal.org/landmatrix
 ADHOC. 2013. “A Turning Point?: Land Housing and Natural Resources Rights in Cambodia in 2012.” https://landportal.org/library/resources/turning-point-land-housing-and-natural-resources-rights-cambodia-2012 and Cambodian Center for Human Rights (2013). “Cambodia: Land in Conflict – An Overview of the Land Situation.” https://landportal.org/node/93249
 Webb, Jessica et al. 2017. Logging, Mining, And Agricultural Concessions Data Transparency: A Survey Of 14 Forested Countries. Working Paper. World Resources Institute. https://landportal.org/library/resources/logging-mining-and-agricultural-concessions-data-transparency-survey-14-forested
 May Titthara, “One million hectares reclassified, gov’t says,” Phnom Penh Post, 27 October 2014. https://landportal.org/news/2021/02/protected-forest-reclassified-private-land
 Baliga, A., and Vong Sokheng 2016.ELCs earn just 5 M for gov’t,” Phnom Penh Post, 18 April https://landportal.org/news/2021/02/elcs-earn-just-5m-gov%E2%80%99t
 Land Matrix. 2019, 3.
 UNDP: 2019. Human Development Report: Cambodia. http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/KHM
 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2009. Social Institutions and Gender Index: Gender Equality and Social Institutions in Cambodia. http://genderindex.org/country/cambodia
 Hennings, Anne. 2019. The Dark Underbelly of Land Struggles: Repercussions of Female Activism and Emotional Resistance on Gender Roles in Cambodia. Critical Asian Studies 51 (1): 103-119.
 See here: https://cchrcambodia.org/index_old.php?url=project_page/project_page.php&p=audio_file_lists.php&a_id=1295&id=3&pro=BHR2
Authored on28 January 2021