Around the Globe: Land Administration in Cambodia

Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge government is instituting land policy to register land ownership, to provide security of tenure, and to facilitate an efficient land market, all with the help of a Canadian agency focused on fair land titling and surveying education.

Editor’s Note:  Surveyors can and do make a difference in the betterment of our world. Land reform through parcel reconciliation and delivery of land tenures has made tremendous positive impact and provided a path to prosperity and self-reliance for the peoples of many developing economies who strive to rise from often tumultuous pasts.
A stirring keynote speech to the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) 2002 conference in Washington D.C on the subject of sustainable development was given by Dr. Anna K. Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-HABITAT (the United Nations Human Settlements Program). In the speech, Dr. Tibaijuka issued a call for action to the surveying industry. “I urge surveyors to take a look at existing methods, which have not worked. You have to come up with faster and more cost-effective land surveys for owners, speedier valuations for both owners and taxing authorities.”
This past decade has seen a great many land reform and administration initiatives around the world, giving hope to countries rising from legacies of war, post-colonial reform, and totalitarian regimes. In this article, Dr. Alec McEwen presents a fine example of such action and the role of surveying and surveyors in successful implementation.

The Kingdom of Cambodia, as that Southeast Asian country is officially named, covers an area of 69,900 square miles—the same size as Oklahoma. Many of its 14.8 million inhabitants are engaged in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and related activities, and there is also significant garment manufacturing. Tourism is the country’s fastest-growing industry, especially for visits to cultural or religious sites such as the spectacular Angkor Wat, an ancient temple complex.

Land Tenure

When Cambodia, then a part of Indochina, obtained its independence from France in 1953, it inherited and continued the colonial land laws that had largely permitted the sale and registration of private property. During the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) most of the land tenure and cadastral records were destroyed, and private property was abolished. The state of Democratic Kampuchea thus became the sole owner of all land in Cambodia.Following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge administration, the Cambodian government introduced a series of laws that gradually established the private right to own, occupy, and sell land. The most important piece of current legislation is the Land Law 2001, passed by the elected National Assembly and signed by King Norodom Sihanouk. This comprehensive enactment vests the ownership of all land in the state, except for such land as has been granted by the state to natural or legal persons or is privately occupied in accordance with the law.

State land consists of two classes: state public and state private. State public land includes, for example, forests, navigable waters, roads, harbors, and airports. It can neither be alienated nor acquired by prescription. State private land, on the other hand, can be granted or leased to private persons of Cambodian nationality, in accordance with the procedures established by a sub-decree signed by the prime minister.

The Land Law 2001 also provides for the issue of a collective title to indigenous minority communities, most of whom occupy land in the highland areas of Cambodia near the country’s international borders. The title is registered in the name of the community as a legal entity which decides how land within the community is allocated for occupation and use by individual members.

Land Policy

Under its declaration on land policy, the government of Cambodia seeks “to administer, manage, utilize, and distribute land in an equitable, transparent and sustainable manner” in order to alleviate poverty, protect natural resources and the environment, and promote a market economy. These goals are being achieved by the establishment of three land sub-sector programs: 1) land administration (LASSP), 2) land management, and 3) land distribution. Each of these sub-sectors is implemented by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC).

The main object of LASSP is to register land ownership and other legal interests in land, to provide security of tenure, and to facilitate an efficient land market. The land registration system is designed to be transparent, simple, accurate, accessible, and inexpensive to operate and maintain.

The Canadian International Development Agency, representing the government of Canada, contributes funds and personnel to LASSP through the Cambodia Land Administration Support Project (CLASP), which was initiated under another name in 2007 and is due to end in June 2013. I was engaged as a land administration consultant at the time of the project’s inception and have undertaken short-term missions to Cambodia every year since then.

The governments of Finland and Germany also support LASSP substantially through their respective national projects. Although each of the three donor countries has its particular agenda and undertakes its own specific tasks for the sub-sector, they all work together closely and harmoniously. A Canadian consortium, based in British Columbia, is the executing agency for CLASP.

With its team of land administration specialists, CLASP provides technical assistance, training, and program coordination, together with project management and financial management services. It offers support in the areas of systematic and sporadic land registration, land valuation, environmental protection, and gender issues such as the right of women to own and dispose of land. The Cambodian co-director of CLASP is the current director of the General Department of Cadastre and Geography (GDCG), which is part of MLMUPC and maintains its headquarters in the capital city of Phnom Penh, with cadastral offices in the country’s provinces and districts. It is also responsible for the operation of the land registry.

Land Titling

Article 30 of the Land Law 2001 provides that any person who occupied land for at least five years before August 30, 2001 (the date when the law came into force) is entitled to request a definitive title of private ownership. Applications for the granting and registration of title are dealt with by one of two distinct but related procedures that have been adopted successfully in other developing countries: systematic registration and sporadic registration.

Systematic registration starts with the declaration of an adjudication area by the provincial governor. This is followed by a public meeting in which the adjudication process is explained and people are asked to cooperate by providing relevant oral or documentary evidence. Where neighbors agree, their common boundary is demarcated. If the neighbors do not agree or are not present, the boundaries are adjudicated and demarcated based on the available evidence.

A cadastral map of the adjudication area is prepared and displayed publicly for 30 days, during which time any person claiming an interest can lodge an objection, which is referred to a dispute-resolution procedure. In the absence of any objection or following the settlement of the dispute, the parcel title is issued and registered.  A modest fee is payable by an applicant for first registration.

Systematic registration is an efficient method of issuing titles for all the properties in a particular geographic area, but it is an extensive process, requiring the employment of teams of surveyors and investigators. As of April 2011, it has led to the issue of more than 1.6 million titles to Cambodian men and women, approximately 73,000 of them during the preceding fiscal year alone.

The cost of adjudication, survey, and registration is approximately $10 per parcel, which is considerably less than the $38 originally estimated. However, it should be pointed out that systematic registration does not cover the cost of demarcation. It is the responsibility of individual landowners to mark and maintain their boundary corners. The law does not provide for any standard form of boundary monument.

Sporadic registration enables individual claimants to land to apply for, obtain, and register a title in areas not yet covered by systematic registration. The procedure is governed by a special sub-decree, and like systematic registration it involves the submission of documents, demarcation, survey, public display, and a provision for settling conflicting claims. Applicants are charged a fee for the sporadic registration of a title based on the size of the parcel. Surveys for systematic and sporadic registration have been undertaken mainly with the use of total station equipment, although the use of GPS to determine boundary location is increasingly favored. At present, government surveyors undertake all surveys for systematic and sporadic registration. The licensing of private surveyors to perform cadastral surveys has yet to be introduced.

Education and Training

The Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh offers a four-year BSc degree program in its Faculty of Land Management and Land Administration. In addition to surveying and mapping courses, the program includes land use planning, land valuation and taxation, and land law among its land administration subjects.

GDCG, assisted by CLASP, provides in-house training to its field and office staff. For example, CLASP has held workshops dealing with the surveying and registration of condominium property and has also trained GDCG employees in property valuation procedures.

LASSP has produced a series of technical training manuals on topics that include demarcation and surveying for systematic land registration, adjudication and public display, and geographic information systems. More recently, CLASP has drafted proposed “Technical Procedures for the Registration of Collective Title for Indigenous Communities.” It has also reviewed and submitted recommendations concerning a draft surveying and mapping law. These documents are prepared in English and then translated into Khmer, the national language.


A consultant’s tasks in a developing country are made very much easier to carry out when he or she is able to draw upon the knowledge and experience of local professional colleagues. For all such advice and assistance generously provided to me over the years I remain sincerely grateful. It is a personal pleasure and privilege to cooperate with the friendly, hardworking Cambodian people and to have the opportunity to participate in the administration of their important land resources. 

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