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5. Natural Resources of the Basin in Cambodia

5.1 Land

All land in Cambodia is owned by the RGC, although land tenure systems have changed in the last few decades. Prior to 1975 land use rights were conferred to those cultivating the land. From 1975 to 1979 all land was collectively owned and exploited and from 1979 to 1989 agriculture remained collectivised under the State of Cambodia, but land was redistributed to family groups under the Krom Samaki system.10 Families with tillage and labour power were allocated more land, to the disbenefit of widows, the elderly and those with few children. In 1989 however, individual rights to land were restored.

A new land law was promulgated in 1992 which sought to discourage land sales and the concentration of land in the hands of a few people. In reality though, land transactions, sometimes by corrupt civil servants have taken place at a rapid rate. Property conflicts are frequent resulting in a confusion of land tenure in most rural areas and the large majority of farmers do not have title to the land they cultivate.

Compounding this, Cambodia’s military, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) has begun leasing large tracts of “military development” land to foreign and local firms (Phnom Penh Post, May 31- June 13 1996). In July 1994, the Military became the country’s single biggest landowner when the Chief of General Army struck a one million hectare “concession” deal with the two Prime Ministers. Seventeen firms have already leased 120,000 hectare blocks from the army in Kompong Speu province. The land is being sold for very low prices, on paper at least, with one, a seventy year lease costing just an eight percent profit share from a flour mill, and an up front payment of $4 a hectare for 32,000 hectares. Both the provincial authorities and the Ministry of the Interior have been shut out of the administration process of these deals, with both claiming the deals are open to corruption. The deals demonstrate the military’s power to act unilaterally of the governments plans, which in the case of Kompong Speu province, were to develop the area as an industrial zone.

UNDP (1994) estimate 40% of the cultivatable area to be mined, being particularly concentrated in the north west region, namely Battambang province where the most fertile agricultural land lies. Mines increase the daily risks farmers must face just to meet their basic daily needs and could be a factor forcing farmers into more marginal, but mine free land. In heavily mined areas farmers could potentially be forced to utilize their land more intensely as expansion is not an option, causing stress on soil resources. There are no studies available on the relation between mines and agricultural systems. It is clear however, that mines are contributing to the present land shortage which has been exacerbated by the influx of returnees since 1992, particularly in Battambang province where a high proportion of returnees resettled, ironically in one of the most insecure provinces.

5.1.1 Vegetation

The most recent vegetation inventory data are from a study in the early 1960s (UNDP 1994). Other more recent vegetation cover estimations, especially for forests, are based on the interpretation of satellite imagery. The UNDP / FAO study financed by the Mekong Secretariat’s Remote Sensing and Mapping Unit and Land Use Mapping Office to produce the Cambodia Land Cover Atlas 1994, is the most recent of such work (see Table 2). The Atlas comprises three land cover maps with statistics from Landsat images (1992/92, 1985/87 and 1973/76) for the whole of Cambodia as well as for each province. However, there have been technical limitations on accuracy due to the quality of the images, adopted area units and different classification methods of vegetation type. Interpretation and the evaluation of the extent and type of vegetation change over time has been difficult and should only be used as a guide for monitoring until more detailed aerial photograph interpretation is carried out at a scale of 1:25,000.

The main findings (see Table 2) of the Atlas are:

  • Paddy fields cover 26,000 km square which shows an increase from the Ministry of Agriculture statistics reported since 1980 which estimated only 19,000 km square of paddy cover. These figures have been found to be an under estimation.

  • Field crops have increased from 518 km square in 1973 to 5,229 km square in 1992, suggesting upland farmers are moving into the lowlands and the flood plain following the nutrients and fertile land. Concurrently upland crops are also increasing, suggesting greater utilisation of marginal lands by a growing population.

  • Evergreen forests have decreased from the 1970’s to 1980’s by 29% or 20,000 km square with an additional decline of 894 km square till 1992. These forests have become mixed or secondary forest and shrublands.

  • Deciduous forest has decreased by 4917 km square.

  • Flooded forest around the Great Lake is drastically decreasing, from 9,379 km square in 1970 to 3,707 km square in 1992. Flooded forest has been cleared for paddy and fuelwood.

Since 1991 there have been several attempts to map the land cover of Cambodia and to modify the land use classification system by the Land Use Mapping Office (LUMO), Ministry of Agriculture, with support of FAO. A land use reconnaisance map was produced in 1991 in cooperation with the Mekong Committtee from the analysis of 1989 LANDSAT satellite images. Figures have not been field checked and the scale of the satellite images limits their reliability.

With the support of the Mekong Committee, UNDP and FAO it is planned to reorganise LUMO into an IRIC. Its priorities will be to revise the land use classification system, map the land use and identify land use changes during the last years and coordinate GIS and remote sensing information from other agencies. Currently though, bureaucratic and management problems are causing delays in the establishment of the IRIC (pers. comm. 1995).

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