Under the leopard's skin: Land commodification and the dilemmas of Indigenous communal title in upland Cambodia

TitleUnder the leopard's skin: Land commodification and the dilemmas of Indigenous communal title in upland Cambodia
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsMilne S
Secondary TitleAsia Pacific Viewpoint
Key themesCivilSociety-Donors, Conversion-FoodSecurity, Dispossession-grabbing, Formalisation-titling, MarginalisedPeople

Two opposing land tenure policies are being implemented in upland Cambodia: indigenous communal title, the product of a decade of advocacy for indigenous rights; and Order 01, a dramatic new initiative to provide private individual titles to thousands of farmers living on state public land. This policy conflict has precipitated painful deliberations in Indigenous villages, whereby the merits of inalienable communal title must be weighed against its risks and constraints; and individual titles must be scrutinised for their potential to accelerate alienation and render frontier areas legible' for government and markets. I examine these issues through the experiences of one villagein Mondulkiri, which recently reconciled' its communal title claim with the new individually motivated reforms. The village exemplifies Cambodia's commodity frontier: it is of mixed Bunong-Khmer ethnicity, and has undergone rapid deforestation and market integration since 2005.Thus, when the individual titling commenced in 2012, the already-fragile communal land claim was abandoned by 25% of its constituents. I explore how this unfolded, revealing powerful moral and racial narratives around Bunong identity and the processes of land fragmentation, commodification and alienation. I also reveal how these processes are enabled by Cambodia's predatory regime, of which Order 01 is an intimate part.


Copyrighted journal article



Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This article provides a highly nuanced case study that shows, in microcosm, the tensions between seeking security of land tenure through communal land title, on the one hand, and individual title on the other. It also complicates the picture of land grabbing and alienation as a mainly external process. On the one hand, Cambodia’s political economy of predation and violence is certainly behind the insecurity over land. On the other, commodification of livelihoods, and increasingly of land itself, within the indigenous Bunong community under study means that processes internal to the community at a local level are also implicated in land insecurity and alienation. The article provides a strong example of the need for nuanced, ethnographic data to understand the choices and dilemmas both for landholders themselves and for policy responses

Key Themes: 
  • Civil society and donor engagement in land issues - Civil society has seen indigenous communal land title as a solution to land alienation. NGOs work through land use planning, conservation and livelihood initiatives that cut across the commodification that has been going on for some time in O Rona. Donor pressure and international agency interference in land issues is not welcomed by the Cambodia government. The politicised nature of land in Cambodia is related to its place in the neo-patrimonial relationship between state and society, and this helps put it off-limits to external intervention at the policy level
  • Land zoning, planning, conversion and food security - The case is presented as a tension between forest commodities, namely timber, forest carbon, and agricultural commodities, notably rubber, cashews and cassava
  • Land dispossession/land grabbing - Hun Sen’s '01' individualised land titling is double-edged. One the one hand, it is set within the discourse of security of tenure for landholders in areas where there are threats of expropriation by tycoons, police and military. On the other, it also creates 'legibility' that gives government greater control. Further, it makes mortgaging and sale of land easier. In O Rona, land has been sold to outsiders – indigenous people are trapped through enclosure as they have kept the 'head' of the land while the 'tail' (land next to the forest boundary) has been sold
  • Land rights recognition/formalization/titling/collective tenure - Communal land title is reserved for those who can show indigenous status. On the one hand, it represents an achievement of recognition of indigeneity and culturally distinctive land use practices. On the other, it risks 'invention of tradition' and the locking of ethnic minorities into what Tania Li refers to as the “indigenous slot” and the 'communal fix'. Where individual land titling overlaps with indigenous communal title, tensions arise. In this case, the key tension is between Hun Sen’s pre-election '01' policy, whereby students were trained and sent out to carry out land certification all over the country in 2012 an 2013, and the ongoing and lengthy process of negotiating for communal title. This tension causes rifts within a single community. The choice leads some to opt for individual title (which requires opting out of rights on communally titled land), based on a fear that leaders may be coopted and sell out the community on the communal land, and also based on the slowness of the process of communal titling compared to '01' titles
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - For the Bunong ethnic minority in eastern Cambodia, communal land titling offers an opportunity to negotiate rights over land beyond that used for permanent individual farming plots. However, it has been very slow and cumbersome, and it requires the performance of indigeneity. As a result, it has been rejected by some in favour of individual land title when presented with the alternative. This has caused a rift within the indigenous community between those seeking to assert identity and rights via indigenous community title, on the one hand, and those striving to get ahead as modern economic actors, on the other. There is a racialization of difference in land use by Khmer/non-Khmer, both in NGO and village leaders’ discourses
Research basis: 

The article is based on an ethnographic study of O Rona village in Mondolkiri village in eastern Cambodia. The author, a Khmer speaking Australian anthropologist, conducted her research during her work in the area between mid-2012 and early 2013 with the Wildlife Conservation Society through an academic project. The encounter between individual and communal land titling provided what the author describes as a “natural experiment” in which local responses and tensions could be investigated. The data was collected through 25 interviews, three focus groups, and participatory exercises in mapping and wealth ranking