The Formalization Fix? Land titling, state land concessions, and the politics of spatial transparency in contemporary Cambodia

TitleThe Formalization Fix? Land titling, state land concessions, and the politics of spatial transparency in contemporary Cambodia
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsDwyer MB
Secondary TitleThe Journal of Peasant Studies
Key themesDispossession-grabbing, FDI, Formalisation-titling, Policy-law

In a widely read paper, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and others propose systematic property rights formalization as a key step in addressing the problems of irresponsible agricultural investment. This paper examines the case of Cambodia, one of a number of countries where systematic land titling and large-scale land concessions have proceeded in parallel in recent years. Cambodia’s experience exemplifies the challenges of the ‘formalization fix’– the proposition that property formalization constitutes a preferable front-line defense against land grabbing – and highlights formalization’s uneven geography as an issue that has yet to generate adequate discussion internationally. Three dimensions of Cambodia’s less-than-successful formalization fix efforts stand out: (1) the spatial separation of systematic land titling and agribusiness concessions that emerged during the 2000s and has only recently begun to be addressed; (2) the deployment of property formalization as a means of land grabbing, especially when applied selectively and unevenly; and (3) the political arena of efforts to legitimize ‘state land’. The paper questions the formalization fix as a policy solution, and argues for both greater spatial transparency in property formalization efforts throughout the global South, and greater attention to the problem of unmapped state land in general.


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Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This paper addresses a key issue in the relationship between land titling and other formalisation programs, on the one hand, and security on the other. This is the process by which titling in some areas implicitly reduces security of tenure in others. The paper takes a geographical approach to the analysis with reference to Cambodia, but it suggests a broader application to the analysis. It employs maps to show how increasing the level of resolution and hence detail of land titling location, and setting titled areas alongside areas where there are large-scale economic land concessions, helps to show how formalisation can miss the target in terms of increasing security for smallholders in the areas vulnerable to land grabbing

Key Themes: 
  • Land dispossession/land grabbing - In Cambodia, land grabbing from smallholders has been facilitated by the discursive creation of 80 per cent of the country’s territory as 'state land'. State land becomes a default category that results from the circumscribing of private land by formalisation processes. At the same time, the land grabbing terminology goes through a discursive shift so that small scale encroachers on forests become the 'grabbers' of land that is the property of the state
  • FDI and land access: economic land concessions, contract farming, short term and long term renting - Economic land concessions have been granted over an extensive area of Cambodia. Maps show that the ELCs are largely outside those areas in which formal land titling under the LMAP program has been implemented. The creation of the extensive category of 'State land' has facilitated the granting of these concessions, which have displaced many smallholders as the preference for allocation is on already cleared land rather than forested areas
  • Land rights recognition/formalization/titling/collective tenure - Land titling has been largely in more accessible areas where there are no great threats of expropriation by large scale land concessions. In this sense, titling under the LMAP program has done little to increase land security where it is most under threat. More recent programs, notably the Prime Minister’s leopard skin' approach including the pre-2013 election land titling done by students and social land concessions have been opaque and very limited in scale compared with the size of concessions
  • Land policy and land law - Land policy in Cambodia has been based on a two-track system of formalised private tenure for smallholders in more accessible lowland areas and state land on which the government has granted large scale concessions. Ironically, the World Bank withdrew from Cambodia’s land titling program (LMAP) as a result of a challenge to its failure to follow due process in the case of the one land grabbing case that occurred in an area designated for titling – the Boeng Kak case in Phnom Penh
Research basis: 

The article is based on a range of data. In part it draws on maps produced for various formalisation programs including LMAP. It also reviews existing reports on land titling in Cambodia. Primary field data comes from three case studies: an educational booklet for villagers produced by the Ministry of Land Management, observation of a summer school on land management,and a series of donor agency documents. All these materials reinforce particular understandings of non-formalised tenure as state land. The author has extensive experience of similar land issues in Laos, and he conducted this study while based in Cambodia as part of a postdoctoral program at the University of Berne