Guillermo Jover-Cataldi: With New Law, Land Rights Issues Present Complex Picture

Land laws passed in Cambodia in 2001 have been “taken hostage” by the country’s elite, said Guillermo Jover-Cataldi. But land rights prior to that were unclear in the country as a matter of custom.

Now, “there’s land-grabbing, there’s forced evictions, there’s people who’ve lived on the land for their entire lives who have their lands taken away,” he said. Without legal documentation, “it’s really questionable whether they have good claims to the land or not.”

Jover-Cataldi studied similar issues in his native Paraguay.

“Cambodia never had a culture of land titles and formal land distribution,” he said. “Today they’re trying to formalize and remedy that situation somehow, but they’re doing it in a very questionable way.”

Meeting with villagers offered Jover-Cataldi good information for his topic, but was also wrenching.

“That was the most moving experience for me, just having talked to them and having entire villages come out to tell their stories to a student from the United States,” he said. “Inevitably after the meeting they would ask ‘What can you do for me?’ It was a little heart-breaking because as a researcher you’re trying to stay neutral. We’re just trying to find out the facts and report on them.”

While the issue may have seemed black and white from afar, Jover-Cataldi said nuances show up when you talk to people in person — the differences between regular citizens versus former Khmer Rouge citizens, and historical communities versus newer communities.

“Cambodia is right after a turning point and they’re still trying to get their act together with a lot of things,” Guillermo said. “It’s a far more complex problem than it appears. It is not just an economic problem.”

He spent more than three days talking to rural villagers hundreds of miles from the nation’s capital.

“You get a chance to really feel what they’re going through and how important this is to them, and how much they depend on what to us are just small pieces of land.”

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