Corrupt Land Grabbing: A Cambodian Response

For the vast majority living in developing nations the principal source of wealth is  land: whether the plot where their house is located, the fields they farm, or the forestlands that provide daily sustenance.  The first effects of economic development often show up as sharp increases in the value of this property.  Once valuable only as a place to locate a small village or to eke out a living in subsistence agriculture, land prices suddenly skyrocket when an airport, ocean terminal, or other significant new infrastructure is to be located nearby.  While offering neighboring property holders a chance to escape poverty, these investments can also put them at great risk.  Land registries in poor countries are often not well-kept and registry staff poorly paid, making the doctoring or forging of ownership records possible.

An example what can happen occurred recently near Sihanoukville City, Cambodia.  After plans to expand the city’s port were announced, a powerful official connected to the port authority began a campaign to evict residents of a nearby village from land they live on and which their families have farmed for generations.  Strategically placed bribes have given him a colorable claim to the land, and he has mobilized local authorities to try and force the residents off the property.

Although all too often Cambodians in a similar situation have surrendered, a group of villagers decided to fight and turned to Bunthea Keo, a young Cambodian public interest lawyer, for help.  Thea brought suit to halt the eviction, and in a paper written for the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative he explains not only the legal theories behind the case but the organizational and financial issues involved in bringing a public interest suit on behalf of a large group of citizens in Cambodia.  It is the ninth in a series of papers the Justice Initiative has commissioned on civil society and anticorruption litigation following earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer, vi) public trust theory by Professor Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, vii) private suits for procurement corruption by Professor Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences, and viii) international tribunals as a means for forcing government action on corruption by Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director of the Social and Economic Rights Project.  All papers are available here.

5 thoughts on “Corrupt Land Grabbing: A Cambodian Response

  1. Pingback: Corrupt Land Grabbing: A Cambodian Response | Anti Corruption Digest

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  3. I applaud Mr. Keo on his brave stand in supporting these people. From reading his paper, it seems that the port-builder’s strategy was a sort of ‘divide and conquer’ approach. Throw one person in jail here, offer half the families compensation there, and various other measures to sow discord among the villagers. So it was nice to see a significant portion of the paper dedicated to the steps lawyers can take to keep the community on board.

    While Mr. Keo was focused on the litigation aspects, it seems the villagers organized protests. I wonder how carefully these two approaches were coordinated. Mr. Keo gives a nod to the role of using media as an advocacy tool as well. While the particular blend of strategies seems to be working well in this case, it might be useful to compare multi-pronged community justice approaches in other land-grabbing situations across the world, in order to determine some common points of leverage and coordinate on funding.

    • Good points. I believe there was coordination with the media and with at least some of the demonstrations. Even if there was not, there was certainly the recognition that a multi-pronged approach was required. Thus you bring out a point which I neglected to mention in the summary: the particular blend of strategies will vary from country to country and case to case. Thanks for making it.

  4. This policy brief is really interesting. I find the logic on behalf of the firm and the corrupt partners pretty confusing though — surely it is more time- and cost-efficient to just pay the farmers to resettle elsewhere rather than formally evict them through the system?

    Though not a perfect analog, this recent paper ( shows that migrants in Bangladesh are more willing to move from their region during the dry season for a mere $8.50. I understand that comparing labor incentives with housing relocations isn’t quite the same, but this leads me to believe that the peasants that lived in these port-side lands might be willing to settle for a pretty cheap price, right? Surely this would be cheaper than hiring the private security guards to forcibly remove them and to fill out the legal paperwork to evict them. I mention this not because I believe this would turn a corrupt practice into a non-corrupt one or would be ethically okay to do, but because I’m trying to understand the motives of why corrupt leaders make the decisions they do. What do you think?

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