Empowering Civil Society in Siem Reap

Empowerment of Civil Society Advocating for the Rights of the Urban Poor in Siem Reap (CISUP)


Siem Reap is Cambodia’s third largest urban centre with around 230,000 residents and 1.5 million foreign visitors in 2011. Urban development follows a five year master plan (2011-2015) which includes resolution for urban poor settlements, foreign assistance to upgrade water supply (JICA), sewage systems (ADB), improvement of roads and other infrastructure- implementation however depends on the availability of funds and is scheduled on a step by step basis. Three new master plans (until 2020) have been respectively prepared with support from DEU, JICA and by APSARA Authority and are pending approval at national level. Planning is however hampered by rapid developments and the private sector investments determining land use patterns more than any master plan and zoning regulations, with some (discussed) exceptions  in the north  and west of town constrained by the conservation remit of the Apsara Authority and the plan of a “Hotel City Zone”.

Siem Reap (district) is benefiting from a booming tourism industry and rapid economic development, which results in both a sharp demand for land and the arrival/ settlement of new population attracted by job opportunities in the construction sector and in the hotel industry. Additionally, poor land development and management policies authorised land speculation that prices the poor out of the formal land markets, and encourage informal settlements. This situation is made more complicated with the existence of the large cultural protected zone managed by the APSARA Authority, organised in five national categories of protected sites with different level of protections  Zones 1 and 2 belong to the inalienable public domain of the State, and any land transfers of concessions which may have been made on the land are null and void. Residential uses should be prohibited in zone 1 and residents should be assisted for their relocation; in zone 2; old villages have to be preserved, but the expansion of built-up area is prohibited. In practice however, numerous people settled in the area (zone 2) since 1998 and tenure involves a complex set of situations, with various degrees of recognition in the community, by village and commune chiefs and by the APSARA Authority.

Currently, the project of beautification of the Siem Reap river is resulting in the eviction of all settlements along the river banks. A first phase was completed in 2012 (142 households), the second phase of re-location will start after National Election (645 households). The population obtained – after a long battle –  at least compensation for the loss of their house and was allocated a piece of land with toilets in Sambuor relocation site, 6km from city center – the site is viable but lacks of an elementary school and health facility. Other development and infrastructure projects usually include a provision for compensation in case of eviction, negotiated on case by case basis.

In APSARA area, “legal residents” who cannot accommodate their ever enlarging families anymore in their existing house can apply for re-location in Run Taek village (30km from Siem Reap town); conditions vary according to the financial capacity of the APSARA authority. For other residents, considered as “illegal”:  many are unclear about their land tenure status (they hold some official documents but they are not recognised by the APSARA Authority) they cannot be evicted due to a royal decree, however they are not formally authorised any construction, extension or reparation and informal land tenure keep them in precarious situation. Conflicts with controller patrols happen and the situation between the population and the Authority remains rather tense despite a kind of status quo.

The population of informal settlements is not homogenous, as it is made of poor households from different provinces of Cambodia, who have arrived at different times over the last 15 years, in search for jobs and economic improvement. Settlements were at first seen as temporary. Community building therefore is underdeveloped and community events and community groups are inexistent in most places. Urban poor are thus not represented even at local level and lack of civil society organisations that could effectively advocate on their behalf. Unfortunately, without appropriate support, the lack of cohesion and absence of community development will be transposed to re-location sites, where population from different areas are re-settled to create a new village.

Cause and Consequence of urban and informal settlement: lack of access to information.

Due to their origin – mostly from rural areas -, their low level of education, the place they live in (in urban/ peri-urban area; informal), urban poor have little access to information and education in general. Indeed very little projects/ NGOs operate in Siem Reap urban area and in the APSARA area to complement deficient or inaccessible public services in informal settlements. Urban poor have very little knowledge about the land rights and regulations, have a tendency to rely on rumours and are easy to manipulate which both put them in precarious situation (people bought lands in zone 2 APSARA area when it was already forbidden) and create conflicts with the Authorities.

Consequence of precarious land tenure: poverty cycle.

In the medium and long-term, land issues and precarious land tenure increase vulnerability to harassment, poor access to basic services, health problems and are a source of conflicts with the local authorities and institutions. Lack of secure tenure and the regulation applying in the cultural protected zones discourage households’ investments aiming to improve their environment and investments in home-based activities, with major impact on poverty reduction.

Urban poor settlements in Siem Reap are considered one of the city’s three key problems by the local authorities, along with traffic and waste management and some actions are incorporated in their plan. The main concern of the Municipality appears to be the settlements’ potentially negative impact on the tourist industry. The Municipality is committed to improve both the living conditions of the poor and their land tenure; the conditions offered to the population re-located in Sambuor site are thus rather good and land titles will be delivered. However additional support would be needed to help the community to gain access to better hygiene, water and sanitation; education and health facilities, and economic opportunities. The Action proposes to support community building in the re-location site: establishment of Self Help Group to initiate saving/inter-loaning schemes; build social and managerial capacity, develop networks and  proposals to obtain education and health services in the village. The APSARA Authority is planning to deliver land certificates to legal residents in the APSARA area, which will probably raise discussion about the rights and tenure of other residents. The Action proposes to facilitate interaction between the Authorities and the population, and encourages mid-term and long-term participatory solutions findings for those considered as “illegal”.


With funding support from EU, Agricultural Development Denmark Asia (ADDA) and Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) co-implementers of this project  and address issues and solutions as follows:

Description of the Project

1.1 Overall objective:

Civil society is built to advocate for the land rights of vulnerable urban and peri-urban (UPU) poor in Siem Reap improving their land tenure situations and livelihood.

The main objective of the action is to empower the civil society organisations in Siem Reap comprising urban poor communities to promote land security and advocate for their rights. This means that urban poor would become better organised and represented in the local decision making processes due to better skills, access to appropriate information and advice, reformed coordination and negotiation mechanisms, and the Action would improve individual and community financial capacity. Urban and peri-urban poor would gain capacity to improve land tenure; negotiate better compensation in case of eviction and maximise benefits of resettlement.

1.2 Specific objectives:

The Action is focusing on the following three specific objectives: (i) Mobilise  and empower civil society organisations representing the urban poor to promote livelihood, land security and land tenure (ii) Advocate for the urban poor and exert pressure to obtain land certification and/or decent compensation in case of eviction, (iii) Improve living conditions in the new settlements.

  • Expected outputs and results:


      • R1: SHGs are empowered and organised to promote the rights of urban poor and improve their socio- economic status. The Action aims at improving the capacity of under-represented groups, e.g Urban and Peri-Urban poor; migrants,  widows and women heads of households,  in terms of management of their personal assets (saving and inter-loaning; planning; productive micro investments), and management and representation of their group in order to improve both the representation of their members and their livelihoods. Thanks to the bi-weekly training and weekly programs, UPU gain knowledge about general social skills and they become able to identify and launch development projects for the benefits of their community. SHGs will specifically analyse the land tenure and land rights issues of their members which will serve to identify most common cases and draw the main lines of a strategy to improve land security and land tenure status.
      • R2: Land rights coalitions are organised to advocate for the land rights of the urban poor. The organisation of groups of common interests or “land rights coalitions” will be proposed to a larger numbers of villagers outside the SHG members in the target area according to the main land issues identified by the SHGs. Coalitions’ members develop their organisational and advocating capacities as well as their legal (land law) knowledge. Coalitions are supported by the Action to such a degree that they develop into proper representing bodies with clear structure, mandate and action plans.
      • R3: Urban poor households improve understandings of their land rights and government processes related to the enforcement of land laws. Appropriate trainings and awareness programs are developed and delivered to (i) support the identification of main land issues of the urban poor with SHG members (ii) support the identification of possible legal actions and (iii) increase the capacity of the coalitions to take action. This technical training contributes to build long term legal knowledge of the villagers in general, and of the coalition’s members and leaders more specifically.
      • R4: Proper consultation, negotiation and mediation mechanisms are developed and used allowing a fair and fruitful dialog between the civil society organisations, local authorities, public institutions and the private sector. The Action will identify existing information, consultation and coordination channels that are used or could be/should be used to address land issues and advocate for better land tenure status; analyse their effectiveness and make recommendations to ensure proper communication and decision making. The Action aims at creating a conducive environment for land rights advocacy undertaken by the coalitions. In this regard existing mechanisms will be favoured whenever possible, additional or new process will be proposed if required.
      • R5: Land tenure certification, eviction and re-location process are well prepared and ensure viable living conditions to the community. The land right coalitions advocate for their community alone, however as newly established and inexperienced bodies they’ll benefit from the counselling services of the co-applicants to better prepare their actions, understand the answers of their interlocutors and develop their own answers. The coalitions will thus progressively build their negotiation skills and increase their influence.
      • R6: Re-located household have improved living conditions in their new settlements. Re-settlements are considered as an opportunity for urban poor to make a new start. The Action aims at accompanying the villagers and village authorities in building the community in the new settlements and promoting income generating activities, improving social skills and initiating community projects.
  • Activities


Main activities aim at building the legal knowledge of 2000 urban poor, allow the effective representation of at least 1,000 households in local decision process in general with a special focus on land tenure issues, and to improve land status of 1,000 households and the living conditions of the re-located community (500 households).