Land tenure problems in Cambodia -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Land tenure problems in Cambodia

By Charmaine Brett

Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, is ranked 130 out of the 173 countries in the UNDP index in 2002.

Eighty-four percent of this agriculturally-based society lives in rural areas, where people rely on the land, fishing and logging for their livelihoods. After 30 years of political conflict, the destruction of the political, economic and social infrastructures has resulted in land tenure becoming a human rights issue.

History of land issues in Cambodia

During the Khmer Rouge regime all land tenure documents were destroyed and private property was abolished; all land belonged to the state. When the political conflict ceased, and population growth rates and refugee repatriation increased, free markets opened creating new pressure on the demands of land. In 1979 Phnom Penh was vacant. The families who came to the city simply took whatever they could. In 1992, as a response to the rapid irregular settlements, the municipality of Phnom Penh started to force families to relocate outside Phnom Penh. This turned out to be unsuccessful as there were no employment opportunities in these new areas.

Today, Cambodia still lacks a rational and equitable system for registering land and recognizing ownership rights. A new law has been developed, stating that private ownership for residential and agricultural holdings that had not been under conflict in the last five years was allowed. A relocation guideline/policy has also been developed with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program, the Department for International Development and UN-Habitat that is intended to ensure that the relocation does not have physical, social, economic or psychological impacts. Yet with corruption everywhere and no judicial system in sight the chance of upholding these laws was unlikely.

Habitat for Humanity’s response

Habitat for Humanity Cambodia fully understands the need to play a role in addressing land tenure and related issues that affect its target communities in urban and rural areas. As such, one of its strategic directions for FY2007 to FY2011 is to participate alongside key organizations to advocate for the government’s implementation of land allocation for the poor (social land) for housing.


  • Develop a strategic partnership framework that fully maximizes partnership opportunities with all organizations including key housing organizations and government agencies.
  • Establish a working partnership with UN-Habitat and other housing agencies to advocate and provide technical support to the relevant government institutions addressing land allocation and land tenure needs of poor communities.
  • Develop communication tools for a diversity of audiences that include homeowners, staff and primary stakeholders.
  • Identify appropriate local and international communication media or platforms to publicize and increase awareness of Habitat for Humanity Cambodia.

The story of a Habitat homeowner in Cambodia
Sourn Sophea had been living in a Cambodian school with her family for about a week and she was ready to leave. It was uncomfortable, and it certainly wasn’t home. It wasn’t just her family occupying the school, but the entire population of the town of Phnom Penh, which had mysteriously burned down days before.

Sophea waited anxiously to see when her number would be called. This number would determine the future of her entire family. “It was like a lottery,” she said. “They pulled plot numbers out of a hat and what number you got was where you lived.”

Sourn Sophea has lived in Cambodia most of her life, except for the time she was forced into a refugee camp in Thailand when Cambodia was deemed unsafe due to escalating violence. She met her first husband there in 1985. They later had two daughters, Rasmey and Rasmy.

“The refugee camp was not safe,” she said. “There was constant fighting between Thailand and the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodians.” Sophea’s husband was killed during the fighting in the camps.

When she first arrived in Phnom Penh after the war ended in 1993, she and her two daughters slept outside a pagoda. They were given two tarps and some rice. Sophea sold seasonal fruit to try and make a little bit of money. Eventually she saved enough and was able to rent a room for US$4 a month.

After two months, Sophea and her daughters were able to buy a piece of land in the slums of Phnom Penh. “I didn’t like the area,” she said. “It had drugs, prostitution and thieves. It was unsanitary and unsafe for my children.”

In recent years there has been an attempt by the Cambodian government to recognize ownership rights for land. However, there is no system in place to help uphold these laws.

As a result, land stealing is a common practice in Cambodia. Landlessness is a human rights issue in Cambodia and growing landlessness is increasing.

In 1994, Sophea met her second husband, a guard at the royal palace. But in 2001, the Cambodian government, police and chiefs began trying to convince people to move out of the slums and take some free land in the countryside. Nobody wanted to move.

“No one wanted any land. Living there was good money. There were lots of tourists to sell stuff to,” she said.

Six months later, a mysterious fire burned down all the homes in Phnom Penh, and “the government came and took everyone somewhere to sleep,” remembered Sophea. The government then divided up the land in the countryside, and gave it to the former inhabitants of Phnom Penh. The new village that Sophea had to live in, Sen Sok, was a long way from Phnom Penh.

Sophea and her husband were forced to commute an hour each way just to get to work. With two young daughters at home, they decided that things had to change. They borrowed US$200 from a loan shark at a monthly interest of US$30 so her husband could become a taxi driver. Sophea opened up a little shop outside her house selling water, ice and small snacks to other people in the village.

In April 2005, Sophea’s husband left her, and she had to deal with paying off the loan shark herself. But, in late 2004 Habitat for Humanity came into Sen Sok. “They paid off my loan and I got back my collateral, which was my land tenure,” she said. “I was able to pay it back with no interest added.”

She was then able to borrow a nonprofit loan in order to build a home for her family. Sophea and her two youngest children, Sophanry, 6, and Theavy, 8, are now living in a newly built home provided by Habitat for Humanity. “I am very happy and thankful to get my land title back and to build my simple, decent home,” she said, “A home where my children and I can be safe.”

Charmaine Brett is resource development, communications and volunteer program officer at HFH Cambodia.