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.