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Under the leopard's skin: Land commodification and the dilemmas of Indigenous communal title in upland Cambodia

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Abstract

Two opposing land tenure policies are being implemented in upland Cambodia: indigenous communal title, the product of a decade of advocacy for indigenous rights; and Order 01, a dramatic new initiative to provide private individual titles to thousands of farmers living on state public land. This policy conflict has precipitated painful deliberations in Indigenous villages, whereby the merits of inalienable communal title must be weighed against its risks and constraints; and individual titles must be scrutinised for their potential to accelerate alienation and render frontier areas ‘legible’ for government and markets. I examine these issues through the experiences of one village in Mondulkiri, which recently ‘reconciled’ its communal title claim with the new individually motivated reforms. The village exemplifies Cambodia's commodity frontier: it is of mixed Bunong-Khmer ethnicity, and has undergone rapid deforestation and market integration since 2005. Thus, when the individual titling commenced in 2012, the already-fragile communal land claim was abandoned by 25% of its constituents. I explore how this unfolded, revealing powerful moral and racial narratives around Bunong identity and the processes of land fragmentation, commodification and alienation. I also reveal how these processes are enabled by Cambodia's predatory regime, of which Order 01 is an intimate part.

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