The Ground Beneath Their Feet
By KAY JOHNSON Poipet
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 land18 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 propertyor
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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