Alice BebanNov 15, 2021
State-Making through Land Reform in Cambodia
Cornell University Press 2021
Why do so many Cambodian small landholders live in fear? How did the issuance of official land titles contribute to growing indebtedness in rural areas? Why did the government send thousands of university students to the countryside to help with the land titling process? And why did international donors eventually become so disllusioned?
In this podcast, Alice Beban, senior lecturer in development sociology at Massey University, discusses her new book Unwritten Rule: State Building Through Land Reform in Cambodia (Cornell 2021) with Duncan McCargo, Director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Unwritten Rule draws on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork to paint a disturbing picture of how an ambitious land reform project, generously funded by leading donors, largely failed to deliver the benefits it promised.
In 2012, Cambodia—an epicenter of violent land grabbing—announced a bold new initiative to develop land redistribution efforts inside agribusiness concessions. Alice Beban's Unwritten Rule focuses on this land reform to understand the larger nature of democracy in Cambodia. Beban contends that the national land-titling program, the so-called leopard skin land reform, was first and foremost a political campaign orchestrated by the world's longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen. The reform aimed to secure the loyalty of rural voters, produce "modern" farmers, and wrest control over land distribution from local officials. Through ambiguous legal directives and unwritten rules guiding the allocation of land, the government fostered uncertainty and fear within local communities. Unwritten Rule gives pause both to celebratory claims that land reform will enable land tenure security, and to critical claims that land reform will enmesh rural people more tightly in state bureaucracies and create a fiscally legible landscape. Instead, Beban argues that the extension of formal property rights strengthened the very patronage-based politics that Western development agencies hope to subvert.
Duncan McCargo is an eclectic, internationalist political scientist and literature buff: his day job is directing the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Learn more here, here, here, and here.