An image of the country's flag.

Cambodia is a largely agrarian country that emerged from a history of political strife and instability into a period of steady economic growth. However, the country started from such a low base that even after a decade of growth averaging 7% per annum, GDP is only $650. Cambodia is ranked 176th out of 213 countries in terms of purchasing-power parity. Poverty rates have reduced somewhat, but they remain higher than in most countries in the region and are only slightly lower than in Laos. At the same time, inequality has increased in Cambodia, in part due to the growing concentration of productive assets, especially land. Inequality in landholdings is among the highest in the region. Furthermore, lack of transparency in many rural land transactions and extensive granting of concessions by the state for economic development have resulted in widespread disputes and conflict over land ownership and use. Unless there is a rapid increase in off-farm employment or other livelihood opportunities to absorb landless labor, the concentration of land in fewer hands will mean a growing gap in the opportunities available to different types of rural households. These factors could jeopardize the ability of Cambodia to continue its rapid economic and social progress. Improving land administration and enforcing established land laws will be critical to ensuring that Cambodia‘s progress benefits all its people.

Cambodia‘s abundant water resources, forestland, and the prospect of large oil and gas reserves create additional opportunities for economic growth and development. The government has been creating large-scale programs to increase the amount of irrigated land to support increased agricultural production and plans to construct new dams to harness the hydropower potential in the country‘s rivers. The first production from the offshore oil and gas reserves is expected in 2012 and concessions granted or in negotiation for five additional blocks. The Prime Minister‘s denouncement of illegal logging and corruption within forestry offices in 2010 is a recent reflection of growing political will for enforcement of existing laws protecting the country‘s natural resources and the rights of local communities to land and forest products. The challenge will be ensuring that those rights and interests continue to be recognized in the years ahead.


USAID and other donors might consider focusing on the following high-impact interventions that would help strengthen the implementation and reform of existing law and build corresponding institutional capacity:

  • Strengthen processes related to concessions. Government land concessions grants have often lacked transparency, threatened environmental interests, and compromise the rights of poor landholders and local communities. In 2009, Cambodia‘s government initiated a process of reviewing the status of economic concessions and cancelling some concessions that did not meet the requirements of the law or terms of the concession. Donors could assist the government in its efforts to address the challenges of supporting the development of agribusinesses and other commercial enterprises while recognizing the rights local communities and environmental interests. Donors could assist with an analysis of constraints to the implementation of existing laws and procedures and help refine processes for environmental and social assessments, land tenure analysis, and meaningful public comment. Donors can also work with the government to help identify areas for supporting regulatory and institutional reforms, such as improving the accessibility of the judicial system for landholders and claimants seeking compensation for land acquisitions.
  • Improve national data on landholdings and landlessness. The government does not have national data on the number of landless people in the country; 2009 estimates vary between 20% and 40% of rural households. This wide range of values on a key socioeconomic indicator impedes informed targeted decision-making on rural development. Donors could help the government collect accurate data on landholdings and landlessness through a living standards survey, an agricultural census, or some other survey instrument.
  • Improve land tenure security for indigenous communities. The land rights of most indigenous communities are not currently registered or recognized, leaving them vulnerable to claims of external parties, including well-organized land grabs. Donors have been working with the government to develop processes and institutions to register indigenous communities and demarcate indigenous land. Experience in other countries such as Mozambique has shown that the formalization of local community land rights requires a significant long-term commitment of resources, with a particular need for NGOs and individuals working in communities to help build their capacity to assert and enforce their rights effectively. Donors could help assess the progress on recognizing indigenous land rights to date, identify barriers and bottlenecks, and design a follow-on pilot project in one or two provinces to further refine processes for demarcation of land and formal recognition of communities and their land rights. Support can be given to develop the capacity of NGOs and local government officials in the technical tasks and processes required for registering community rights and to help communities develop the skills to negotiate with third parties and commercial interests for investment in and development of indigenous land.
  • Increase access to land titling projects by vulnerable groups. Donors involved with Cambodia’s land titling projects may consider taking additional steps to ensure the rights of vulnerable groups. These could include: (1) funding NGOs to work with the most vulnerable populations to ensure that they are able to participate in the ongoing titling and registration process; (2) funding gender specialists to help ensure that the ongoing titling and registration processes support and improve women’s land rights; and (3) designing and implementing public education campaigns on landholder rights in areas targeted for land titling and registration and areas vulnerable to land takings.
  • Improve land tenure security for women. The land rights held by Cambodian women are often highly insecure. Cultural norms and practices often marginalize women within their marriages and households and many women lack awareness of their rights as joint owners of family land or family members with rights of inheritance. Rights held by the high percentage of women-headed households are vulnerable to loss to male family members, local elites, and commercial interests. Donors could work with the government to protect and improve women’s land rights through educational programs and legal literacy campaigns focused on increasing women’s knowledge of land rights and land administration procedures. Support could also be provided for programs that assist women, their families, and their communities with training in communication and dispute resolution techniques. Donors could also support the efforts of legal aid organizations and NGOs to expand their services to include a focus on protecting and improving women’s land rights.
  • Support pro-poor development of water resources and institutions of water governance. The Cambodian government is increasing the amount of irrigated land to support growth in agricultural productivity (particularly rice production) and plans to build ten new dams to support irrigation and hydropower. These projects, which have the potential to increase household farm production and income, also have the potential for elite capture, the displacement of rural communities without adequate support for livelihoods, and environmental harm. Donors can assist the government in its plans for the design and implementation of projects by helping draft procedures that reflect the comparative experience of other countries that have engaged in irrigation projects and dam construction. Donors can help fund appropriate environmental and socioeconomic studies at a stage and in a manner that can influence project design and help form the basis for meaningful programs for community engagement and support. Donors can also assist in the expansion of irrigation by assessing the performance of Farmer Water User Committees (FWUCs), collecting lessons learned, and drafting best practices to support the creation and strengthening of FWUCs.


Cambodia is a predominantly agrarian society dependent on the country‘s forests, agricultural land, and abundant water resources. Despite steady economic growth, about 58% of the population lives on less than US $2 per day (2007), with 26% suffering from daily hunger. The relatively youthful population (half are less than 21 years old) struggles to obtain adequate education and productive skills, particularly in rural areas where infrastructure is limited. The tourism sector is an increasingly important contributor to the national economy and has significant potential for development.

Cambodia has undergone dramatic and often violent political changes throughout its history. Each new government has introduced its own system for the use and ownership of land, resulting in confusion and conflict. Significant socioeconomic changes (refugee repatriation, urbanization, economic growth and population growth) have increased demands on land and landholdings in both rural and urban areas. Most farmers operate subsistence-level rainfed plots. The country has high numbers of landless people (20% – 40%).

Cambodia has a relatively advanced legal framework for land tenure and administration. Components of the framework relating to economic land concessions and the conversion of public land are controversial. Despite an on-going effort to title and register land, tenure insecurity is high, particularly among the poor, women and indigenous groups.

Cambodia is rich in natural resources, including water, hydropower potential, forests, ecological biodiversity and minerals.With donor support, the government is driving initiatives to significantly expand the amount of irrigated land and develop the country‘s hydropower potential through the construction of dams. In the forest sector, efforts to develop community forest management have been progressing. Illegal logging has resulted in high levels of deforestation, and in 2010, the Prime Minister issued a strong public condemnation of illegal logging and replaced key officials. Offshore reserves of oil and gas have been discovered, although the extent of the reserves and the potential for commercially available extraction is still unknown. UNDP has begun programs to assist the government in developing its nascent extractive industries sector in a transparent fashion with accountability to local communities.

Published / Updated: May 2011