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The Ground Beneath Their Feet
Poipet, Cambodia
By KAY JOHNSON Poipet

ALSO
Reclaiming History:
After decades of official neglect and rampant theft, Cambodia is finally recovering its artistic heritage

The military police descended on the squatters' village with batons and AK-47s in late June. They went door to door, ordering more than 950 families to get out and then tearing down their shacks. A week later, armed soldiers patrolled the three-hectare field in the filthy border town of Poipet to keep stragglers from returning. The land is to be developed by the military and private businessmen. The squatters were trucked to uninhabited land that turned out to be heavily mined. Within a week, a man's legs were blown off a kilometer from the site.

Driving the poorest of the poor onto minefields is only an extreme example of the land wars that grip Cambodia. Fueled by poverty, a population explosion and corrupt officials selling off state property, landlessness has become one of the country's most pressing problems. A recent survey by the aid group Oxfam showed that one in eight rural families has no land, and the rate is getting worse. In a non-industrialized, undereducated society where 80% of people depend on subsistence farming, that's a huge concern. Oxfam warns that Cambodia faces a hunger crisis and widespread social unrest if the problem isn't solved. "The rich are getting more land and the poor are getting less," says Shaun Williams, head of Oxfam's Cambodia Land Study Project.

The irony is that Cambodia has plenty of land—18 million hectares for less than 12 million people. Yet despite a major redistribution 11 years ago, the poorest half of the population now shares only 15% of cultivated land. The most common reason cited for landlessness, according to the Oxfam study: marriage. Cambodia's baby boomers, born in the early '80s, are coming of age, getting married and looking for land to farm. But the average family plot size is only about a hectare, too small to divide. Many families are forced to sell their land to pay medical bills. Adding to the problem are increasingly common land grabs by the military.

Cambodia's government is in a unique position to solve its land problem: the state owns 80% of the country. But it tends to sit on the property—or sell it off to private interests. Often, this involves evicting squatters who have moved in, as in Poipet. The country is hoping to take a step toward land reform with a law, now before parliament, that would organize land titling and grant squatters' rights to farmers who have occupied land for five years. But according to Jacqueline Desbarats of the Cambodian Development Resource Institute, within five years some 175,000 new families will be looking for land. "What will all those people do? Where will they go?" she asks. Without a major redistribution of state-owned land, Cambodia's turf battles could get uglier.

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