PHNOM PENH, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cambodia is moving fast to provide millions of land titles to farmers in an effort to reduce conflicts over territory in the Southeast Asian nation, a senior government official said.
About 770,000 Cambodians - more than five percent of the population - have been affected by land conflicts pitting small farmers against plantation owners in the past 15 years, according to human rights lawyers.
Restoring tenure has been one of the government's top priorities with more than 400,000 small farmers given the official paperwork to secure land ownership each year, said Seng Laut, spokesman for Cambodia's Land Ministry.
The authorities have issued 4.3 million titles in the last two decades and are on track to meeting their goal of seven million land title deeds by 2023, Laut said.
"When all of the land plots are registered, the conflicts will be over," Laut told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at his office in the capital, Phnom Penh.
"We want to speed up land registration that makes land property safe."
Following Cambodia's genocide in the late 1970s and the destruction of land records by Khmer Rouge fighters, the government says it has been working to re-establish who owns different pieces of territory.
University students have been sent to rural areas to interview farmers and conduct surveys to help get land titles to growers, Laut said.
The government has also set up special dispute resolution bodies in farming regions to help mediate land conflicts.
"The committees solve conflicts based on consensus and compromise," Laut said. "There is no need (for rural residents) to hire a lawyer and spend money: it's win - win."
Nevertheless, campaigners say that well-connected politicians and businessmen have used the country's weak land tenure regime to usurp territory from local residents.
Cambodia is the country with the second highest number of large-scale land transactions signed globally, after Indonesia, according to a report entitled "Tainted Lands: Corruption in Large-Scale Land Deals" by the U.N.'s former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in November.
With 104 documented large-scale territorial deals signed since 2000, Cambodia is at the centre of what campaigners call the "great land rush" and increasing disputes between investors and farmers.
There are now about 800 ongoing land conflicts in Cambodia, down from 7,500 in 2003, Laut said.
The government stopped issuing new Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) - a type of large-scale investment which campaigners say have forced villagers off their land - to private companies in 2012 amid an outcry from rights groups.
Existing concessions must work around small farmers living inside the areas they have leased or they will lose their right to operate, Laut said.
He said the government has taken back tens of thousands of hectares that were granted to companies as ELCs to show that they will target firms who displace farmers.
"The government will cancel contracts of companies who do wrong ... they have to protect the land of the people," he said.
"You will see in the near future, some (more) contracts will be cancelled."
Travel support for this reporting was provided by OpenLandContracts.org, an initiative of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. (Reporting By Chris Arsenault, editing by Jo Griffin Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)