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Données foncières et stratégies en Asie du Sud-Est

Ce document compare les régimes fonciers et les données foncières de deux pays de l'Asie du Sud-Est, nommément la Thaïlande et le Cambodge. Cette comparaison repose sur deux cas d'études publiés dans ce journal (Nabangchang-Srisawalak, 2006; Ballard, 2006). Il cherche à identifier les thèmes communs et les différences en matière de questions, de problèmes et de solutions afférents aux politiques foncières. Le document aborde également quelques-uns des défis émergents compte tenu de la différence de degrés de développement économique existant entre les deux pays ainsi que l'importance des données foncières en tant qu'un des apports décisifs en matière de détermination de stratégies.

Datos de titularidad territorial e instauración de políticas en el sureste de Asia

En este artícula se compara la situación de los sistemas de tenencia agrícola y los datos de tenencia de la tierra en dos países del sureste asiático, Tailandia y Camboya. La comparación se basa en los estudios de casos de Nabangchang-Srisawalak y de Ballard publicados en el presente número. Se pretende identificar los temas comunes y las diferencias en cuestiones, problemas y soluciones con respecto a las políticas de tenencia agrícola. Se abarcan asimismo algunos de los nuevos problemas teniendo en cuenta las diferencias a nivel de desarrollo entre ambos países y la importancia de los datos de titularidad territorial como base para el diseño de las políticas.

Land tenure data and policy-making in Southeast Asia

O. Nabangchang-Srisawalak
Orapan Nabangchang-Srisawalak, Associate Professor, School of Economies,
Sukhothai Thammatirat Open University, and Coordinator of Land Forum

This article compares the status of land tenure Systems and land tenure data in two countries in Southeast Asia, namely Cambodia and Thailand. The comparison is based on the two case studies published in this journal by Ballard and Nabangchang-Srisawalak, and identifies common themes and differences in issues, problems and solutions with respect to land tenure policies. The article also addresses some of the emerging challenges given the differences in the level of development between the two countries and the importance of land tenure data as one of the vital inputs for policy-making.


Despite the differences in the level of development and in the structure of the economies of Cambodia and Thailand, land is an important resource and production asset upon which the majority of the population of both countries rely. Thailand is the larger country of the two, with an area of 513 000 km2 and, in 2003, a population of 63.4 million. Up to 1997, the double-digit growth rate earned Thailand the reputation of being among the “Asian miracles”. With a gross national income per capita of US$2 190 per year, Thailand is classified as belonging to the lower middle income group by the World Bank.1 With income generated by various economic sectors, Thailand is no longer a strictly agricultural economy. In fact, 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by the manufacturing and the services sectors (National Economic and Social Development Board [NESDB], 2005). The smaller share of less than 10 percent revenue generated by the agriculture sector may be interpreted as a structural move to the more productive non-agricultural based economy; yet 42 percent of the population are employed in the agriculture sector (NESDB, 2005). The declining GDP share of agriculture reflects low productivity both of labour and land factors of the sector, and indeed is cause for alarm. Cambodia, by comparison, is a smaller country, with a total area of 181 000 km2 and a population of just over 13 million. Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries, with heavy reliance on the agriculture sector both as the main source of revenue (34.5 percent of GDP) and as the single largest employment sector. What both countries share is a large number of people classified as poor and living below the poverty line; however, the figure is far higher in Cambodia, at 36 percent (FAO, 2005) compared with Thailand's 9.8 percent (NESDB, 2005). The poor are mainly concentrated in rural areas, are mainly agricultural and hence dependent on the land factor as a means for income generation.

Though neighbouring countries, the relationship between Thailand and Cambodia has not always been peaceful. Nonetheless, at least before the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) period, the countries shared some similarities in their social and cultural dimensions. Cambodia has been through turbulent periods in its history and changes of government, as well as changes of political and economic ideology. Those periods not only resulted in disruption but also destruction of land records, which had to be recreated and reshaped as part of the efforts to rebuild society and the economy. By comparison, Thailand's current land administration is founded on periods of relative peace. Land use was governed to a great extent by market incentives and policy directives that aimed at providing the infrastructure and technical support for increasing production and output of cash crops.

Public and private land

“Public land” for Cambodia means land under the responsibility of the State, and is divided into two subcategories. One of these refers to land of environmental and ecological importance such as forests, watersheds and wildlife sanctuaries. The other is public land that is earmarked for allocation to the landless and the near-landless, who represent the bulk of the poor. The typologies of the use of public land can be said to be broadly the same in Thailand. There are slight differences, however, in definition. Private land, by Thailand's definition, refers to parcels of land that have been issued titles which legally recognize the full bundle of rights of the owner as any other private property. Private land in Cambodia, on the other hand, does not necessarily signify private ownership. The term “private land” is more an indication of the rights of decision-making rather than legal possession, which can either be by the individual, communal or some form of co-ownership. Short of ownership, other forms of land tenure in Cambodia include habitation rights, usufruct rights, mortgages and pledges.

Although the social and political Systems of the two countries may differ in some respects, there are similarities in the broader institutional structure of land administration. The key players can be divided into three levels. At the macro and sectoral level of planning, in view of the complexities of use of land resources, there are multiple players. Given the intersectoral nature of land management, interministerial institutions have been established, such as the Council of Land Policy (CLP) in Cambodia and a range of national level committees in Thailand including the National Land Committee and National Land Reform Committee. As land use and management is a main component in ail development sectors, the key ministries that have specifie mandates over different aspects of land management generally include ministries responsible for agriculture, forestry, natural resources and environment, and urban and spatial planning. Over the years, the number of such public agencies involved in land administration has proliferated, as have the types of land documents, with varying legal properties, decrees, rules and regulations. Like Thailand, Cambodia appears to be moving in the direction of multiple players.

At the operational level, there are agencies that deal with registration and titling and technical staff responsible for data collection and computation. Registration and titling is a main foundation for building a functioning land market, and in each of the countries there is a single responsible agency. For Thailand, the Department of Lands under the Ministry of Interior is responsible for registration of land rights and the issuing of titles. In Cambodia, the equivalent is the National Cadastral Office under the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC). Both have provincial and district branches. Regarding technical staff involved in the development and updating of the statistical databases, while there are differences in the stages and levels of development, parallel structures have been set up or are in the process of being set up. The National Statistical Office (NSO) of Thailand and Cambodia's National Institute of Statistics, for example, are responsible for collection and computation of population censuses. Given the political disruption during the Democratic Kampuchea period, Cambodia as yet has no agricultural census. Local government is a key player in land management, particularly in view of the decentralization of responsibilities.


Land and the poverty dimension

The relevance of land to poverty stems from two key issues, food security and income generation (land as a productive asset). Both the amount and qualities of the land have implications on the food security situation. In Cambodia, concerns have been raised by the number of landless and near-landless people, which is rising at an annual rate of 2 percent (FAO, 2005). For Thailand, food security is both about producing the supply the revenue earning capacity of the producers themselves. Similar to the situation of world food shortages, the distribution of food supplies is more of a challenge than the production of food itself. The relevance of land tenure and land information in relation to food security issues is its role in the estimation of the food supply situation. The collection and maintenance of land tenure and land use data, as well as production data, will enable planners, including governments and donors, to target resources in support of improved food security more accurately. At the least, such information would indicate geographical concentrations of supply (as opposed to adopting certain assumptions over per capita demand for food) and, with information on the population distribution, some estimates can be made to identify food deficit areas. In addition, there would be prices, market transaction costs and affordability to be factored in.

In capital-scarce economies, land is the most important production asset, which can be used to provide subsistence needs and the surpluses for income generation; thus, a common policy prescription is to allocate land to the poor. While clear associations exist between land and poverty incidence, large information gaps exist, particularly on land tenure. Past and current efforts in Thailand in championing the idea of giving land to the landless have confronted logistical problems in verifying the demand and the supply side. On the demand side, operational constraints can start from matters as basic as how to define and prioritize the poor, and land tenure information is required to support this process. In tandem with that is the need for information on the stock of land supplies. There are also the modes of land acquisition and delivery to consider. Consideration of what should be the optimal farm size is also a part of realistic estimation of demand and supply potential.

Land and environmental issues

The relationship between land and the environment engages the broader concepts of efficiency, equity and sustainable uses of resources. In addition to deforestation, agricultural production is often associated with adverse environmental impacts such as soil depletion, soil erosion and contamination of water sources; the bulk of the blame has generally been directed at resource-poor farmers. Apart from their potential for agriculture, natural resources represent the stock of natural assets and a source of wealth for rent-seeking economic agents. Because forests provide both ecological and economic functions, substantial work needs to be undertaken. On the forest resources per se, work needs to be undertaken on classification and making resource inventories. Regarding the economic role of the forestry resources, work may be less straightforward and will involve identification of users, their numbers and how resources are used; the location; the intensity of use; the revenue generated and the resources rent paid by the users. Inadequate attention to these issues has given rise to various dimensions of conflict. Social conflicts arose, for example, because the boundaries of forest resources are generally not well defined and because rights and entitlements of users have tended to be unclear. There are also institutional conflicts between the public agencies, which can be traced back to unclear mandates and scope of responsibilities. Agencies follow different procedures and generally are authorized by different pieces of legislation. There have been inefficiencies of utilization of public funds and resources caused by overlapping or duplication of functions, which have led to confusion and plagued land administration, with overlapping of claims and parcels of land having several documents issued by different authorities (Nabangchang-Srisawalak, 2004). Incidences of conflict are becoming more frequent in areas where the market value of land is higher and where there are higher competing uses, for example in areas undergoing transition from agriculture to commercial use (FAO, 2005).

One other area of conflict is that between the State and the people. This type of conflict, widespread in Thailand, has arisen in situations where the State disputes or does not recognize de facto rights to land of people who have invested their own efforts in clearing and utilizing the land, or have bought the land from previous owners. These conflicts are generally concentrated in areas of environmental and ecological importance such as national forest reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. A larger segment of the small-scale farmers in Thailand are now occupying ecologically fragile land (Nabangchang-Srisawalak, 2003). Lands brought under production by marginal farmers (including small and landless farmers) are usually marginal lands found in many open-access situations.

Finally, there is the issue of large-scale commercial agriculture versus small-scale farms. Given the notion of “public goods”, coupled with equity considerations and considerations over comparative abundance of resources, there is an implicit preference for small farms. In practice, institutional failures can lead to opposite outcomes, hence the numerous cases of complaints raised over preferential treatment in favour of large commercial farms. The discontent in the case of Cambodia has already been noted over the granting of 64 economic concessions to large commercial farms (Ballard, 2006).

Of equal importance to the issues of access, control and ownership of land are the factors that will ensure the revenue-generating functions of land resources. Productivity of the land depends, in the first instance, on physical attributes such as soil type, slope and availability of water supply. Land productivity can be enhanced by the availability of supporting infrastructures such as irrigation facilities. Technology inputs and factors inputs, which can raise both land and labour productivity, ail require investment, and hence the high relevance of the accessibility to services and to the capital markets. Information required on these supporting components includes physical attributes, availability of supporting physical infrastructures and status with respect to accessibility to the capital markets (both formal and informal).


Land tenure information on private and public land

If property rights are endorsed, security and accessibility to credit and capital markets will increase market values. With records of land ownership and transactions recorded, it becomes possible to monitor transfers and ownership. Among the lessons learned from Thailand is that the speed of land titling has not been without costly trade-offs such as discrepancies, overlapping of claims and disputes, which created further costs of rechecking and validating. The knowledge that there will be titling and legal endorsement of claims can actually encourage encroachment onto forest land in anticipation that land claimed would be granted titles. Such has been the root cause of cases of land use conflicts where titles have been issued inside protected forest areas or within the boundaries of State land. Among the lessons learned is also that registration programmes should be accompanied by publicity campaigns. Asymmetry of information, often conditioned by differences in social and economic status between buyer and seller, has unfortunately worked out to the disadvantage of the poor (Srisawalak, 2003).

In view of the importance of public land resources with respect to economic, social and environmental concerns, land tenure data on public land is of crucial importance. Collecting land use information with regard to public land and monitoring land use changes will fill in many information gaps in land management, and should be undertaken parallel to the registration of private land. The speed with which this is executed should also be emphasized, as such data would allow for more accurate estimation of the spatial scope and level of utilization of resources; this in turn would form the basis for determining the amount of work that still needs to be done on public land.

Two other land-related databases, namely agricultural and population censuses, are essential for macro- and sectoral-level planning. The Cambodian agricultural census, when it is developed, is expected to be the one-stop venue for land tenure data. If land information will also be collected as part of the population census, then the unit of analysis should be the same. This would make it possible to share information from different databases without having to make assumptions on compatibility of units and definitions.

Thailand's situation is of a different nature altogether. While Thailand has had a considerable head start, with long experience in collection and analysis of population and agricultural censuses (both undertaken by the NSO) and other statistical databases, the values of both databases can be enhanced if agencies would make better use of what is available rather than investing more resources to collect and compile information as and when needed. Thus, Thailand's challenge is more how to increase the utility value of several stand-alone databases (which is often limited by coordination constraints). The existence of multiple databases leads to losses in the practical value of the information. The presence of international agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) should make institutional cooperation easier, if not mandatory. Unfortunately, donors can sometimes contribute to the growth of multiple databases when approaching agencies on ad hoc basis. Given the scarce resources, efforts to build an integrated framework for developing a land tenure database would be more cost-effective, not only from the point of view of the countries themselves, but also for the donors.

The limitations of land tenure data

While land tenure data are essential policy inputs, there are limitations relating to collection, analysis and usage, and this limits their potential usefulness. Problems arise from combinations of financial gaps and human capacity constraints. To develop a comprehensive land tenure data System, financing is required for three purposes. First, investments are needed to develop and regularly update land tenure databases. Hère there are concerns over heavy reliance on donor financing, the project orientation approach to data collection and the risks of non-sustainability of efforts. Another area where financial resources are required is for land registration processes; this applies to both privately owned land and registration of occupancy in public lands. Given the magnitude of the tasks and the speed at which countries would like to complete the process, external sources of assistance would be necessary for launching as well as accelerating the process. There are also issues relating to financial limitations of local governments in the context where financial resources from central governments are gradually withdrawn, and also the issue of user fees levied, which might create gender biases as well as bias against lower-income groups.

As far as human capacity constraints are concerned, three sorts of personnel are required, namely, personnel responsible for data collection, registration and capacity building of local governments, which will be concerned with the management and tax (or revenue-generating functions) levied on land under various types of land use. Ongoing decentralization highlights the importance of capacity building of local governments in particular, and will dictate changes on both the revenue side and the cost side of land management. Local governments will principally be given additional responsibilities in tax collection; they will also be able to retain a larger percentage of revenue, as well as having greater discretion over its use. Land tenure information is the basic precondition for improvement of efficiency in tax collection, which dictates the demand for regularly updated information on land ownership and land utilization.


Based on the experiences of Thailand, and the emergence of the same problem areas in land management in Cambodia, there is a need for a central land tenure database. The framework for developing such a database should start at the village level, with the intention of aggregating the information to subdistrict, district, provincial and higher levels of analysis. The database should contain information at the individual level on the number of parcels of land owned, rented or leased out. It should also contain information on site locations and the nature of land use. The design should include linkages in the database on the physical attributes of land, such as land capability and soil suitability, and networks of supporting physical infrastructures. More important, this land tenure database should be linked with socio-economic databases in the population census and agricultural production data available in the agricultural census.

Without such a central database, none of the key land-based issues mentioned here can be addressed immediately because what exist at present are fragmented land tenure data compiled by different agencies, and which furthermore are not readily accessible or usable. Often the resources spent, the delays involved and the trade-offs in quality of information collected in response to ad hoc policies have intensified, rather than reduced, the existing confusions. Given the fragmented information, policy-makers cannot establish, with any level of accuracy, such features as land distribution, the magnitude of landlessness and near-landlessness, legal properties of land parcels, the level of tenurial security of occupants on various types of public land, the scale of the problems of deforestation (either with respect to the size of the population now inhabiting ecologically sensitive areas) or the rate of expansion and the corresponding demands for resources. Nor is it possible to expect local governments to execute some of the roles related to the beginning of decentralization in land management, such as collection of land tax.

The establishment of a central land tenure database does not necessarily imply creating yet another land database. For Thailand, it means integrating the fragmented land tenure data, addressing the coordination constraints discussed. For countries such as Cambodia in the initial stages of putting together a framework for land management, it means developing a framework for a land tenure database with the goal of having a one-stop source for land tenure data, and with the intention of linking this database to other relevant sources of information. The existence of such a database would not only provide an overview of the land tenure situation at the local level (and at higher levels of aggregation if and when needed), but it will also provide the benchmark to monitor changes in land tenure Systems and associations with other development variables. In many respects, the land titling process already provides a systematic means to monitor land transactions in private land. Although this is an essential step in the construction or, for some countries, reconstruction, of the land market, where changes in the land tenure situation are more closely related to poverty, food security and environmental concerns in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia it is in relation to public land where information is scant and where institutional and legal measures have tended to lag behind the changes that are occurring. A System for recording and monitoring transactions in public areas is therefore an important tool for management of public land.

For practical purposes, however, there are two major considerations. First, the database needs to be regularly updated to reflect the dynamics of changes in the land tenure profile. Second, the structure of the database should be clear and simple. The large numbers of isolated geographic information System databases are ample proof that large investments in sophisticated techniques do not necessarily guarantee practical uses. Data collection, insofar as possible, should be localized, either undertaken by village headmen, local governments or people assigned by these authorities. This will mean large-scale capacity building, to communicate the rationale for data collection, the structure of the database and the variables to be collected. Equally important will be the incentives provided for the contributions in collecting and updating this database.


Ballard, B. 2006. Land tenure database: development in Cambodia. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1:70–80.

FAO. 2005. Land tenure database development in Cambodia, by B. Ballard and Tong Kimsun. Paper prepared for the FAO Land Tenure Service. Rome.

National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB). 2005. Monitoring and evaluation of the social and economic development: 3 years into the Ninth National Economic and Social Development Plan. NESDB 2005 annual conference. Bangkok.

Nabangchang-Srisawalak, O. 2003. A cost-benefit analysis of resettlement policy: A case study of Ob Luang National Park, northern Thailand. Singapore, Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia.

Nabangchang-Srisawalak, O. 2004. The state and the strategy for addressing the problems of land for production and producers' cooperatives. Executive summary (English). Bangkok, National Economic and Social Advisory Council (NESAC).

Nabangchang-Srisawalak, O. 2006. Land tenure data in Thailand. Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 2006/1: 82–92.

Srisawalak, E. 2003. The impact of ground surveys for the purpose of issuing and titles under Section 58 of the Land Code, 1954. Bangkok, Thailand Research Fund.

World Bank. 2005. World Bank country data and statistics (available online at www.worldbank. org/data/countrydata/countrydata.html).

1 For comparison purposes, country data - unless stated otherwise - are from World Bank Country Data and Statistics (available at

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