|About 400 youth volunteers depart Phnom Penh yesterday to take part in a land measurement program organised by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post|
May Titthara and David Boyle
The Phnom Penh Post
“The district governor said that when I identify how much land I have, the young people will provide land to me according to the amount of land I have, but the young people do not dare to trim land for villagers if the company does not allow them”
Adorned in new military uniforms, about 400 more young volunteers who have been enlisted into Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ambitious national land-titling scheme departed from Diamond Island yesterday armed with measuring tapes, computers and GPS units.
The budding surveyors are the latest group of some 2,000 students being dispatched across the country to measure land for families who claim to live in areas overlapping economic land concessions, though details of just how this will be implemented have been murky.
Im Chhun Lim, senior minister for the Ministry of Land Management, told the assembled volunteers yesterday they had six to eight weeks to help officials grant 1,200,000 hectares to villagers nationwide.
“After measuring, we will hand over land titles to the people free of charge,” he told the students, who are destined for 13 different provinces.
In total, the students had been divided into 168 groups to measure land for 350,000 families, Chhun Lim said.
The premier has stated clearly that the scheme will allow every family who has a claim overlapping an ELC to apply for a five-hectare plot, but the details of a plan to compensate those arguing they already occupy more land than this has remained ambiguous.
They are supposed to be able to apply for small ECLSs and a copy of the application forms for the leases obtained by the Post yesterday reveals the plots will be tax-free for five years but expire after 50.
Those granted the small ELCs will be bound to use the land for appropriate agriculture, cultivate it in a manner that does not conflict with the public interest or harm the environment and submit a five-year master plan, all at the threat of having the licences revoked.
Thun Saray, director of the rights group Adhoc, said in theory the small ELCs were a good idea, but how fairly they would granted was another question.
“The problem is to give the fairness to everybody, not only the people who are close to the power while the others are not,” he said.
He wondered what would happen to the children and grandchildren of families that had been granted 50-year small ECLs and called on the government to clearly explain these areas of ambiguity.
“I think the small economic land concession like this is beneficial for people who can do the business by themselves, but I am concerned about the implementation,” he said.
The scheme is being implemented by provincial or district officials and technical experts from the Ministry of Land Planning, Urbanisation and Construction, with the help of the students.
But at a village in Banteay Meanchey’s Puok district, confusion reigns among residents who think the students are responsible not just for measuring land but also awarding it.
Sanh Vanna, 27, from Thlork village in Banteay Chhmar, said that despite spending four days measuring land already, the volunteers were unwilling to act contrarily to the wishes of the National Development Company, which has a 4,667-hectare concession at the heart of a land dispute.
“The district governor said that when I identify how much land I have, the young people will provide land to me according to the amount of land I have, but the young people do not dare to trim land for villagers if the company does not allow them,” she said.
District governor Phlek Vary said a committee including officials from the Ministry of Environment and district authorities was still determining the details of land measurements.
“We will carry out the solution for the village as the foremost stop. The premier put a lot of attention on us because he always makes phone calls to us, almost every hour,” he said.
Caught in the middle of it all is 25-year-old Chhern Yong, a student from the Royal University of Law and Economy, who explained that the volunteers had no right to tackle disputes, only to measure land.
“Since I have been measuring the land for the residents, both the residents and the company always drop accusations of land-grabbing against each other,” he said.
Yong said his group of 12 volunteers had gained better training after meeting provincial experts and working in the field than they had at the ministry.
“The provincial experts allowed us to measure by ourselves, but we do not know how to deal with the residents that have more than five hectares of land, who we have never met yet,” he said.