Land lies at the center of debates about Cambodia’s socioeconomic development. For farmers in the fertile lowlands, private land ownership rights have enabled recovery of their livelihoods after decades of 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.1 The resulting displacement and land disputes have spread to urban and lowland areas, resulting in one of the highest rates of land inequality in Asia.2
Before Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863, all land belonged to the King.3 The notion of land ownership was introduced under the French and was maintained in the post-independence era4 until the abolition of private property and destruction of land title records by the Khmer Rouge. The Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 ended Vietnamese occupation and established a market economy, leading to the restoration of private land ownership in the 1993 Constitution.5
Agriculture is the main occupation for over 40 percent of Cambodians,6 but many more live in rural areas and rely on agriculture in one way or another. Rice production depends on the availability of arable land and irrigation systems.7
Land policy and classifications
Since 2001, when the Land Law was passed, the Cambodian government has made progress in developing policy, regulatory and administrative frameworks for land management. The Land Law introduced three main land categories:
State land, in two sub-categories:8
State public land has public interest value, containing things like lakes or mountains, ports or airports, roads or public parks, schools, hospitals, protected areas, historical sites, or official properties of the Royal Family.9 State public land cannot be sold or granted as economic land concessions (ELCs), although it can be leased for up to 15 years.10
State private land does not have public interest value as mentioned above.11 It can be sold or leased, including long-term leases and land concessions for agro-industrial businesses, but any such transfer must follow legal procedure. 12
Collective property is in two sub-categories:13
Private land is legally owned or possessed by persons or a company.16
The Land Law provides for the issuing of large scale land concessions to domestic and foreign investors. While there are constitutional provisions for private ownership in Cambodia through fully transferable land title, the majority of unsurveyed and untitled land remains the property of the State, facilitating the granting of concessions on that land.17 Communal land titles are recognized, but the law sets up a number of hurdles that have made application for communal land tenure recognition a drawn out process. Applicants must choose either private or indigenous recognition; the two forms cannot be combined.
Land tenure rights
Beginning 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. In registering all land, the programme aimed to remove uncertainty over land ownership that caused conflicts and tenure insecurity. A Cadastral Commission was set up to resolve disputes arising during the course of land registration. The Rectangular Strategy for Growth, Employment, Equity and Efficiency in Cambodia included commitments to step up distribution of land to the poor and to provide titles to secure legal ownership.18
By the end of April 2019, around 5.2 million land parcels were registered nation-wide, accounting for 74% of the total 7 million land parcels. According to the Ministry’s plan, the 100 percent nation-wide land registration, including indigenous communal land registration, will have been achieved by 2021. 19
In previous land registration efforts, many communities may have been arbitrarily excluded,20 especially low-income households in high-value urban areas or where ELCs operate. Studies suggest that the Cadastral Commission has been responsible for overseeing land registration, but it suffers from bureaucracy and corruption, and the pace of registration has been slow.21 These problems are viewed less as an absence of policy but rather limitations in law enforcement and irregularities in the implementation of existing legislation.22
Tenure insecurity is often linked to disputes over ownership.23 Many low-income households live on land where ownership is not recorded in the national land registration system. In these cases, households are protected under possession rights (paukeas) instead of the stronger legal category of ownership rights (kamaset). According to law, only legal possessors have the right to become owners, while households who possess land illegally do not.24 For instance, any occupation of state private land is considered as null and invalid.25 In practice, NGOs observe that possession may be legal, but residents are often evicted.26
Families with less than 1 hectare rice land
Source: National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development (2011). Created by Open Development Cambodia, December 2015. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0. Explore the data. Visit Map explorer tool.
In a survey of landholding patterns in 433 villages, Oxfam found that “12 percent of owners with holding of greater than 3 hectares each owned a total of 72 percent of the land.27” In rural areas, where over 80 percent of the population resides, GIZ reported landlessness at 20 percent, and 40 percent of the households with under 0.5 hectares of farm land.28 Besides issues of ownership and title, safety remains a concern in some areas because of landmines, and demining work continues.
Land transfer and public land lease
Nearly 12 percent of the country’s land area29, or about 2 million hectares, has been granted to investors under terms of economic land concessions. In addition, 704,592 hectares have been granted mining licenses, and 305,405 hectares assigned to 72 hydropower projects.30 Through concessions, land is leased to local and foreign investors for agroindustry businesses, energy generation, and extractive industry. In total, a 2013 study found that “3.9 million hectares, or some 22 per cent of the country, is now controlled by the private sector and particularly the local elites”.31 In contrast to their large land area, ELCs make only modest contributions to economic development, generating only US$ 5 million in government revenue in 2015.32
Source: Ministry of Mines and Energy and various sources such as news, company profiles, NGO reports and other publications (1995-2014). Created by Open Development Cambodia, December 2015. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0. Explore the data. Visit Map explorer tool.
In May 2012, the government adopted Order 01BB on Measures for Strengthening and Increasing the Effectiveness of the Management of Economic Land Concessions, suspending the granting of new ELCs and calling 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 has been cut out of ELCs from 134 companies and more than 250,000 hectares of land has been cut from state-owned land and seized forest land.”33
Land dispute resolution
Over the last twenty years, Cambodia’s development trends have been underlined by widespread land disputes and violations of land rights. Issues surrounding ELCs and other extractive and agribusiness expansion are the principle causes of violations of private property and other human rights abuses. Land disputes have been particularly numerous in upland areas, where many resource extraction projects are based and migrants from other provinces have moved into land used by local residents.34 A second major arena for land disputes is in urban areas, especially Phnom Penh and neighboring provinces, and on both sides of Tonle Sap Lake.
Despite recent legal and institutional reforms on the management of ELCs and protected areas, land disputes have spread across the country.35 In 2015, LICADHO reported that the number of land disputes had increased threefold in the past year.36 Figures for reported disputes fell for 2016. The NGO Adhoc, for example, received 112 land dispute complaints involving 8,973 families in 2016, down from 182 cases affecting 16,679 families in 2015.37 Land Management Minister Chea Sophara said that land registration and land dispute resolutions have cut the number of disputes and protests.38
Cumulatively over time, more than 500,000 people have reportedly been affected.39 Sar Sovan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, said that the government has its own, more accurate figures. According to figures collected by the ministry, “of every 1,000 land titles [issued, there are just] three or four conflicts.” Sovan added that in the 357 communes across the country in which land titling has taken place, land conflicts are not a major problem. “On average, one village has disputes [affecting] less than one person,” he said.40 Additionally, the ministry had settled 3,335 land conflicts on its own “outside the courts”.41
Land conflicts frequently end in eviction. In Phnom Penh alone, NGOs report that nearly 30,000 families have been evicted from their homes in the last 25 years.42 In a July 2015 report, local rights group ADHOC said that in the first six months of the year, it received 66 complaints of land rights violations affecting more than 3,500 families on more than 8,600 hectares of land.43
In the future, ELCs will likely no longer be a dominant factor contributing to land disputes, as the government is speeding up registration of land titles and an inventory of the state land, including in protected areas, a joint effort of the Ministry of Environment (MoE), and Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). However, growing inequality of land access, ineffective land management for sustainable development, and a shift in geo-location of land disputes will become core issues. Large-scale land acquisition for agribusiness44 and contract farming45 appear to be the main driving forces behind growing inequality in land access and may bring new threats to secure land tenure.
Foreign ownership of property
Foreigners cannot own land in Cambodia (this is prohibited under Article 44 of the Constitution), but they can acquire ownership rights in private units of co-owned buildings from the first floor up. (Foreigners cannot own ground floors or underground floors in co-owned buildings). The rules were set out in the Law on Providing Foreigners with Ownership Rights in Private Units of Co-Owned Buildings, promulgated in May 2010.
Last updated: 06 June 2019
- 1. Üllenberg, A., Foreign Direct Investment in Land in Cambodia (Phnom Penh: GIZ, 2009), 11.
- 2. World Bank. Sharing growth: equity and development in Cambodia. Report No.39809KH (PhnomPenh, 2007), 54.
- 3. Diepart, J-C.“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://orbi.ulg.ac.be/bitstream/2268/183306/1/DIEPART_2015_Fragmentation-Land-Tenure-Systems-Cambodia.pdf
- 4. Ibid, 23.
- 5. Grimsditch, M., Kol Leakhana and Sherchan, D., Access to Land Title in Cambodia: A Study of Systematic Land Registration in Three Cambodian Provinces and the Capital (Phnom Penh: NGO Forum on Cambodia, 2012), 1. https://data.opendevelopmentmekong.net/en/dataset/access-to-land-title-in-cambodia-a-study-of-systematic-land-registration-in-three-cambodian-provinc
- 6. Sok Chan 2017. “Report says farming workforce halved”, Khmer Times, 15 June 2017. http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/39336// Accessed 28 June 2017.
- 7. Hul Reaksmey, “Hun Sen again stresses need to develop irrigation systems.” Cambodia Daily, 19 August 2014. https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/hun-sen-again-stresses-need-to-develop-irrigation-systems-66810/
- 8. Sub-decree No. #129 on Rules and Procedures on Reclassification of State Public Properties and Public Entities, 27 November 2006, Article 3.
- 9. Land Law 2001, Article 15. Sub-decree No. #118 on State Land Management, 7 October 2005, Article 4.
- 10. Sub-decree #129 on the Rules and Procedures on Reclassification of State Public Properties and Public Entities, 27 November 27, 2006, Articles 18 and 16.
- 11. Sub-decree #118 on State Land Management, October 7, 2005, Article 5
- 12. Land Law 2001, Article 17.
- 13. Land Law 2001, Articles 20-28.
- 14. Land Law 2001, Article 20.
- 15. Land Law 2001, Article 25.
- 16. Land Law 2001, Article 10.
- 17. Dwyer, M., “The formalization fix? Land titling, land concessions and the politics of spatial transparency in Cambodia.” Journal of Peasant Studies 42:5 (2015): 916-917.
- 18. Prime Minister Hun Sen. Address to the First Cabinet Meeting of the Third Legislature of the National Assembly at the Office of the Council of Ministers, Phnom Penh, July 2004.
- 19. Open Development Cambodia (ODC). “Press release on a land dispute resolution mechanism for the people”, 06 May 2019. Accessed on 06 June 2019. https://opendevelopmentcambodia.net/km/pdf-viewer/?pdf=files_mf/1557124636convertjpgtopdf.net_20190506_083657.pdf
- 20. Grimsditch, Kol and Sherchan, Access to Land Title in Cambodia.
- 21. ANGOC, “Securing the Right to Land: An Overview on Access to Land” (Manila, 2012), 39, 85. http://www.angoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/06/securing-the-right-to-land-an-overview-on-access-to-land-in-asia/SRL2.pdf
- 22. Colchester, M. and Chao, S., eds. Agribusiness Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in South-East Asia (London: Forest Peoples’ Programme, 2013), 7.
- 23. 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, 21 st Session, 11 October 2012), 9.
- 24. Land Law 2001, Article 6.
- 25. Land Law 2001, Article 18.
- 26. Grimsditch, M., and Henderson, N. “Untitled: Tenure Insecurity and Inequality in the Cambodian Land Sector” (Phnom Penh: Bridges Across Borders, 2009). https://data.opendevelopmentmekong.net/library_record/untitled-tenure-insecurity-and-inequality-in-the-cambodian-land-sector
- 27. World Bank. Sharing growth: equity and development in Cambodia, 55.
- 28. Üllenberg, Foreign Direct Investment in Land in Cambodia, 11.
- 29. Colchester and Chao, eds. Agribusiness Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in South-East Asia, 10.
- 30. Figures on mining and hydro-power concessions are based on Open Development Cambodia datasets.
- 31. Colchester and Chao, eds. Agribusiness Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in South-East Asia , 3.
- 32. Baliga, A., and Vong Sokheng, “ELCs earn just 5 M for gov’t,” Phnom Penh Post, 18 April 2016. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/elcs-earn-just-5m-govt
- 33. May Titthara, “One million hectares reclassified, gov’t says,” Phnom Penh Post, 27 October 2014. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/one-million-hectares-reclassified-gov%E2%80%99t-says
- 34. Diepart, “The fragmentation of land tenure system in Cambodia”, 1920.
- 35. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). “Hundreds of villagers petition commune chiefs over decade-long land dispute with sugar company,” 20 January 2016. http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/flashnews.php?perm=154
- 36. LICADHO, “Renewed Surge in Land Disputes Must be Addressed Not Denied”, 19 February 2015. http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=374
- 37. Pech Sotheary, 2017, op cit
- 38. Ibid
- 39. LICADHO. “Statement: 2014 Brings a New Wave of Cambodian Land Conflicts.” 1 April 2014. Accessed April 2014. http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=342
- 40. May Titthara and Cuddy, A.. “Licadho data ‘not real’: gov’t”, Phnom Penh Post, 4 April 2014. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/licadho-shows-data-govt
- 41. Niem Chheng. “Gov’t denies land issues.”
- 42. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, “Phnom Penh’s History of Displacement – Evicted Communities from 1990-2014” (Phnom Penh, 2014). http://teangtnaut.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/FactFigures23_Evicted-Communities-PP-1990-2014_VsFinal.pdf
- 43. Sen, “Gov’t pledges to step up land titling pace”.
- 44. Colchester and Chao, eds. Agribusiness Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Human Rights in South-East Asia.
- 45. Sum Sreymom and Khieve Pirom, “Contract Farming in Cambodia: Different Models, Policy and Practice”, CDRI Working Paper Series No.104 (Phnom Penh: Cambodia Development Resource Institute, 2015). http://www.cdri.org.kh/webdata/download/wp/wp104e.pdf