Canadian Consulting Engineer

Award of Excellence: Land Titling in Cambodia

November 1, 2004
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

International financial institutions have started funding land titling projects in developing countries to give the world's poorest people security of tenure. This investment recognizes the tremendous potential for generating capital that exists i...

International financial institutions have started funding land titling projects in developing countries to give the world’s poorest people security of tenure. This investment recognizes the tremendous potential for generating capital that exists in land. Mortgages on titled land provide the capital for much of the commercial activity that underpins the world’s most prosperous economies.

The people in greatest need of land titling, however, are often in war-torn, remote areas, and few organizations have tackled the challenges of these regions. The World Bank, for example, has a land registration project in Cambodia known as the Land Management and Administration Project, but it has focused on lands that are relatively accessible and where ownership is reasonably easy to establish.

McElhanney Consulting of Vancouver and GeoSpatial of Victoria, B.C., broached the problem in Banteay Mean Chey, a remote and impoverished province of northwest Cambodia with a decades-long history of war and dislocation that has left the land littered with landmines.

McElhanney and GeoSpatial saw an opportunity to help the situation and combine their expertise in satellite imagery, cadastral mapping, geographic information systems and landmine surveys. They prepared an unsolicited proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which provided 80% of the funding for the project. The consultants donated the remaining 20% of funding in kind.

The consultants prepared property maps and over 3,700 land title certificates for five villages where previous official records of land ownership had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge (the last remnants of the brutal regime were only removed from the area as late as 1998).

The companies also worked with the Halo Trust, a British charity, whose role was to dispose of the landmines encountered during the course of the work.

Mapping and property

The firms pioneered the use of QuickBird satellite imagery for property mapping and land titles. The conventional procedure has been to use aerial photography, but hiring an aeroplane is expensive, and cloud cover and the smoke haze from farmers burning stubble limits visibility on most days. The QuickBird satellite, launched in 2001, provides imagery with a pixel size of 60 centimetres, which is suitable for identifying fence lines and rice-field boundaries.

GeoSpatial had previously mapped areas of suspected landmine contamination throughout Cambodia. In this new project they enhanced the database by identifying uncultivated areas on the satellite images, recording landmine accident locations and seeking out villagers that had knowledge of the landmined areas. Trained staff in protective clothing used metal detectors to establish safe pathways to survey points on each property corner and arranged for detonation of any unexploded munitions encountered. Global positioning satellite surveying was used to supplement the satellite images.

The Canadians designed an interactive database that automatically generates land titles from the cadastral database using the Khmer script. The Khmer script was also used for public presentations where villagers had the opportunity to confirm or object to property boundaries. To lay claim to land, they had to have occupied the land for a period or show documentation that they had owned or inherited the land previously. Although official records had been destroyed, most people had kept some personal papers establishing their connection to the property.

While the Canadian specialists provided project management, the emphasis was on empowering 28 Cambodian staff to carry out the work. The consultants trained them in fieldwork and office technology using commonly available equipment and software, leaving a legacy to build on in future projects.

The project faced a number of logistical obstacles. To reach the remote villages the team sometimes had to use motorcycles when the roads were otherwise impassable. They were working in villages far from electricity, clean water or basic accommodation. To house the team staff, the consultants rented a building near the villages, and also established offices in Phnom Penh and in Sisophon, capital of Banteay Mean Chey.

Community benefits

Certainty of land title will enable the villagers to raise capital through mortgages and agricultural credit at more reasonable rates (currently 36-60%), and to invest in equipment. Security of tenure will also encourage the landmine action organizations to engage more in clearing rice fields, whereas to date they have focused on village centres. Many landmined areas have been abandoned by the original owners, and either claimed by military personnel or occupied by those so desperately poor that they will risk cultivating contaminated fields. In the absence of land title, the landmine action organizations are hesitant to clear these areas, knowing that land disputes often result.

This project removes this concern about land disputes following landmine clearing. Of the 3,700 land titles created during the project, only 19 disputes were registered, and all but one were settled quickly.

The project was completed in December 2003, following which the first land titles were presented at a ceremony blessed by Buddhist monks and with over 1,000 villagers in attendance.

In March 2004, the project received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award in the Consulting Engineers of B.C. awards.


Name of project: Land Administration in Landmine Contaminated Areas, Cambodia

Award-winning firms: McElhanney Consulting Services, Vancouver; GeoSpatial International, Victoria, B.C. (Chris Newcomb, P.Eng., John Blair, Ian Lloyd, P.Eng., Don Murray, P.Eng., Michael Simmons, Ron Hewitt, Barbara Hoffman)

Owner: Kingdom of Cambodia, Ministry of Land Management

Client: Canadian International Development Agency

Supplier: Leica Geosystems (GPS)


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