Behind the school where he teaches, Bai Romphery farms cashews and cassava on land in his hometown of Pii village in northeast Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province.
Unlike most of the residents of Pii village, the 35-year-old Romphery has an individual property title for his plot of 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres). The majority of his neighbors in the ethnic Kreung community participate in an indigenous collective land title (CLT) giving them shared ownership.
But Romphery decided to leave the CLT in 2015 to acquire an individual title for his 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) of land. His family was one of 32 families which have left since Pii village gained its CLT in 2014, according to village leaders.
“Having an individual title is better,” Romphery said. “If you want money from the bank you can get it. In the future, when you meet a crisis, you can get [a loan].”
Banks and microfinance institutions typically require individual titles for collateral, although there are some alternatives for lower amounts. CLT participation prevents villagers from using their land for loans, but offers legal protection against sales and concessions chipping away at indigenous communities.
Pii is one of only 33 villages with an approved CLT among more than 455 indigenous communities, according to NGO Forum, which focuses on vulnerable communities. Dozens of villages are still in various approval stages for CLTs, a notoriously difficult and costly process.
The choice Pii village residents face of whether to leave or stay in the CLT mirrors the dilemma for communities with collective land titles under Cambodian law. They want to protect their land but also believe they need greater credit access for economic development.
While Pii village leaders insist there is no conflict with those who left the CLT, not all agree leaving is a good idea for the community as a whole.
“Some people want to do business on their own,” Pii village chief Kov Oeurn said. “However, there are some individuals, not all of them are smart. So, if they know they are not going to do well, it’s better to stay under the CLT because the land security is higher.”
Since the early 1990s, the government has ceded more than 943,000 hectares (2.3 million acres) to private companies, often overlapping with land possessed by indigenous communities and rural Cambodians, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner For Human Rights (OHCHR).
“I still value the CLT,” Oeurn said. “Because we know that without it the villagers will be very vulnerable to selling their lands as they can sell it to everyone who dares to provide a high price anytime.”
Reav Trean, former head of the Pii village land committee that manages the land title, recalled how the community first rallied around the CLT concept to protect their community from a Vietnamese company seeking to mine the land for gems and minerals.
“If it was not for the CLT the land would be with them,” Trean said.
The debate over participating in a collective land title is not new for indigenous communities. Yet past discussions focused more on how best to ensure land protection against concessions and encroachment, with some deciding individual titles offered quicker, safer paths to securing land ownership.
The CLT originated under the Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2001 Land Law, which established Cambodia as mainland Southeast Asia’s first country to recognise indigenous people and give them special protections. The change represented a major shift after the Kingdom’s 1993 Constitution made no mention of indigenous communities.
The creation of CLTs did not guarantee the rights they promised were easily obtained. The legal process was not clearly outlined until 2009 and in the years communities have waited for CLT protection, economic concessions and land encroachment often have shrunk their holdings.
A special programme established under the orders of prime minister Hun Sen in 2012 offered families the opportunity to quickly receive individual land titles if they could prove active land use inside economic land concessions and state forests. The government’s promotion of collective land titles was scrapped and authorities chose instead to offer private titles to indigenous people.
Known as Directive 001, the initiative limited the ability of indigenous communities to protect their traditional lands by offering an incentive for taking individual titles confined to 5 hectares (12.35 acres). The directive also implied any land outside the title belonged to the state, according to researcher Sarah Milne.
Seven families declined to take part in the Pii village CLT. One of those villagers, Kleb Yuut, said his family wanted to ensure control of their land.
“I don’t even know who has the [collective] title,” he said. “If we hold it [the individual title], we know how much land we have left.”
With his individual title, Yuut took out a $5,000 loan for his house. After paying back the loan he planted cashew and rubber on 3 hectares (7.4 acres) and bought land in a nearby village with additional loans.
“It would be better if everyone had an individual title,” he said. “With the CLT, we can’t even acquire more land or expand it.”
In contrast, Romphery embraced the CLT when his village began its application more than a decade ago. But after he got married and had two children to support, he wanted to grow his land holdings and farming operations.
Using this individual title, Romphery took out a loan for $2,000 in 2017 using 3.5 hectares of his land as collateral. The farm is prospering, he said.
Although providing new avenues of credit to rural villages, the rise of microfinance in the Kingdom has led to a widely acknowledged debt crisis among poor, overleveraged Cambodians, especially in rural communities vulnerable to predatory lending.
A 2018 OHCHR report warned community members receiving a first loan then can develop an “addiction to taking loans on a regular basis….” Under repayment pressure, debtors may be forced to sell the land.
Pii village residents have gone into debt buying land from neighbouring indigenous villages, many of which do not yet have CLTs, or for construction, medical, education and farming expenses, the village chief said.
Leaving the CLT can take up to two years due to the bureaucracy requiring approval from the village authorities all the way up to the Ministry of Land and Ministry of Interior, the chief said.
Those who leave the CLT are technically no longer allowed to access sacred spirit and burial forests, though in practice this is often permitted, including in Pii village. They are also blocked from using state-owned “reserve forest” lands rented to indigenous communities to manage.
Sophea Pheap, an NGO Forum programme manager, said community leaders should fully explain CLTs to their constituents. He has seen the issue in other communities and worries residents who withdraw do not fully understand the long-term benefits. The government and financial institutions should develop policies ensuring communities can access sufficient credit without having to leave a CLT, he said.
“They [financial institutions] can adjust their internal policies that can fit with the collective ownership of [indigenous peoples],” he said. “I think that the government also wants to be flexible as well and ensure that when the land is registered for collective ownership, it will not compromise the rights to access loans as well.”
The Pii village chief said he hopes no more villagers will leave the CLT, but acknowledges they may be jealous of neighbors who have already left and boosted their economic standing with higher credit.
Leaving the CLT is not the only way to access credit. Villagers can ask family and friends or take small amounts from village savings groups, where villagers pool their money to loan out. More often, villagers turn to group loans, where two or more borrowers can receive $1,000 to $3,000, with one person on the hook for the payment if the rest of the group defaults. Often no land title is required.
“Some people who are still in the CLT who plant rubber and cashew are still able to earn just as much as those who left,” Oeurn said.
Before banks, people were more likely to help each other with loans, but ready credit and higher economies of scale has reduced support among villagers, the chief explained.
Expensive events like funerals and weddings were easier to manage when the whole community contributed, village leaders said. Changing traditions and a scarcity of land and resources are increasing the costs.
Tombs today are made from expensive concrete in addition to the traditional ceremony of multi-day feasting and the sacrifice of a cow that can cost at least $500. There’s also the purchase of a wooden coffin.
“Before we had an abundant amount of trees, unlike now,” Trean said. “We could cut it down and make the coffin out of it. Now, if we don’t borrow money from people, we won’t have enough money to hold the ceremony and buy all of those things.”
The spirit of open community land remains, even among those who left the community land title, Trean added. The community has no need for fences or hard boundaries within the land title because everyone knows and respects section ownership. But Trean worries an influx of outsiders could lead to less solidarity and a community where livestock can’t wander and property is closed.
Despite leaving the CLT, Romphery relies on the community well for water and said he helps maintain local culture as long as he participates in ritual offerings, funerals and other village ceremonies. Doing so is more important than being a member of the CLT.
“I still join the events in the village,” he said. “That’s how we preserve our Kreung identity.”