'Indigenous Peoples' and land: Comparing communal land titling and its implications in Cambodia and Laos

Title'Indigenous Peoples' and land: Comparing communal land titling and its implications in Cambodia and Laos
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsBaird IG
Secondary TitleAsia Pacific Viewpoint
Key themesCivilSociety-Donors, Formalisation-titling, MarginalisedPeople

In 2001 a new Land Law was adopted in Cambodia. It was significant because - for the first time - it recognised a new legal category of people, Indigenous Peoples or chuncheat daoem pheak tech in Khmer, and it also introduced the legal concept of communal land rights to Cambodia. Indigenous Peoples are not mentioned in the 1993 constitution of Cambodia or any legislation pre-dating the 2001 Land Law. However, Cambodia's 2002 Forestry Law also followed the trend by recognising Indigenous Peoples. These laws have been both symbolically and practically important, as they have provided government-mandated legitimacy to Indigenous identities and associated land and forest rights, including communal land rights, and have been ontologically significant in dividing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples on legal grounds. Over a decade after the 2001 Land Law was promulgated, this article considers some aspects of its effects. In particular, when compared with the potential for developing communal land rights in Laos, one has to wonder how advantageous it is to adopt Indigenous identities and the types of communal land rights and community forestry rights presently possible in Cambodia. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]


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Cambodia, Laos

Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This article shows both the advantages and the limitations of communal land titling as a strategy to achieve security of land tenure for indigenous ethnic minorities. It also shows how the association of communal land with indigenous status can simultaneously provide recognition of different ways of life and land management practices, while at the same time impose constraints on indigenous groups and also exclude non-indigenous people from communal land tenure options. The article discusses the role of NGOs in negotiating but also sometimes imposing particular constructions of “indigeneity” that can box people in to certain practices and put the onus on them to prove their status in order to qualify for recognition of land tenure. Finally, the article shows the restrictive nature of communal tenure in Cambodia in relation to rights over forest resources that are significant for livelihoods

Key Themes: 
  • Civil society and donor engagement in land issues - NGOs have been helpful in achieving recognition of indigenous status and in negotiating for title that accommodates customary practices that can sit uneasily with the standard model of individual land title. At the same time, the emphasis on communal title sits uneasily with the priorities and changing contexts of production of ethnic minorities who get boxed in by their assignment to what Tania Li refers to as the 'indigenous slot'
  • Land rights recognition/formalization/titling/collective tenure - The 2001 Land Law in Cambodia recognises communal land, but it sets up a number of hurdles that have made application for such land tenure recognition a draw-out process. In Laos, communal land is being recognised on a pilot basis, and it is not tied to indigenous status. In Laos, there is no provision for different tenure criteria being applied for different ethnic groups. Communal land has the advantage of formalising areas of agricultural land, including old fallows that are part of swidden cultivation systems. At the same time, restrictions on sale and transfer may in the longer run constrain farmer options on such land. While communal land tenure may not provide absolute security, there is evidence that it provides a better negotiation platform for communities when dealing with external investors
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Recognition of indigenous status in Cambodia is ahead of other mainland Southeast Asian states (choncheat doem pheak tech). Communal land tenure is specifically tied to indigenous status
Research basis: 

The article is based on the author’s extensive experience of working on land and indigenous issues in Cambodia and Laos. While it is not based on a specific in-depth study, there is an extended case study of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s project at Seima National Protected Forest in Mondulkiri.