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Recognising Land Use Rights And Potential On Koh Trong Island

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


KOH TRONG, AN ISLAND IN THE MEKONG


MING is an islander of Koh Trong since birth. While her children ventured out to the mainland for better opportunities, she decided to stay on the island. More than 9 years ago, she became a pioneer of homestay host with help from NGOs and the Koh Trong Community Based Ecotourism (KCBET) group. Today, the charming and tranquil island attracts ecotourists regularly.

Settlements on Koh Trong are mostly found linearly along the coast but not inland. A narrow path circles around the island, connecting islanders on either sides. Inland, however, floods frequently due to its lower elevation, posing a problem for islanders. Nevertheless, it has not deterred them from using the area for agriculture. On top of rice fields, Koh Trong is renowned for cultivating pomelo fruits.

Aside from two villages on the island, there is a Vietnamese floating village slightly offshore. There are also three temples tourists are able to visit, and they have a choice to stay in the homestays or the resorts in the Northern part of the island. With lowering of river water levels during the dry season, the beach fronts around the island gradually reveals itself.


SECURING LAND OWNERSHIP AND RIGHTS


Ming owns the land for her homestay that comes with an edible garden backyard. Without second thoughts, she plucks off long beans and bitter melon from her garden for her meal, delightedly sharing that she also owns separate land for her fruit plantations, most of which are inherited.

Recently, Ming’s daughter purchased land from her neighbour to expand her homestay accommodation capacity behind the garden. Ming carefully pulls out an original handwritten document from a plastic document folder. It details the land transaction between the neighbours. For the most part, agreement over land is decided between neighbours or between buyers and sellers. The process is also regulated and endorsed at the village and commune level.


Left: Sample documents from one of the islanders for proof of land ownership.

Middle: Ming’s local land ownership document signed with thumbprints by Ming, her neighbour

and endorsed by the village chief for the purchased homestay land

Right: Land use survey form classifying land type (inherited or purchased) and approximate land measurement for preliminary survey


This semi-quasi agreement is about to change. The government has now begun surveying land ownership on Koh Trong, part of a national land legalisation initiative[1]. For almost a decade, the villagers have been requesting to have their land ownership officially recognised. This year, the government finally decided to answer their call. Officials have approached the villagers to conduct pre-surveys, verification of documents and measuring of land. Measurements, however, have not been smooth. At submerged areas owned by islanders, officials have to come back another day.

But what if you have no supporting documentation of your own land? “Even I don’t have it too!” the village chief divulged. Caught by surprise, the room bursts into laughter. For the islanders, it isn’t a huge problem. Traditionally, for those without any documentation, all they have to do is agree upon four corner points of their land and negotiate peacefully with all their adjacent neighbours before heading down together to obtain written documents and endorsement by the village and commune chief.

Ming is pleased with the state’s efforts to help islanders secure their land. Unlike some who are less well-informed and merely follow through the procedures, she clearly understands the importance of land deeds to prevent land conflicts.


Outdated land use map of Koh Trong with a close-up image of the island, found at the Town Hall.

The land use map is explicitly lacking in map features that can provide accurate and precise information on boundaries of land ownership, types of agriculture and road networks that are commonly found on maps in more developed areas with better land use planning and management.


With clear ownership of land, better maps can be drawn to have a comprehensive understanding of landuse for the entire island. For the individual, official land deeds also enable them to use their land to acquire bank loans.

Based on the community ecotourism representative, investors have been interested in purchasing land on the island but the recent prices have sky-rocketed. Nevertheless, Ming has no intention of giving up any part of her land for that matter. She intends to preserve the land for her future generations.


Signboards pointing to the modern villas tucked away in the northern part of the island.


The Arun Mekong Guest House and Rajabori Villas located north of the island are examples of joint-investments from German and French counterparts. Presently, islanders are receptive towards these developments as it has helped to bring in new infrastructures, attract tourists, improve cleanliness and provide younger Islanders employment opportunities.

Despite the northern tip of the island being sold off to Korean joint-investors according to Khai Koh village chief, the locals are still positive and welcoming. A local guardian was even tasked to take care of the land and planted rice. An agreement was also established to preserve a sacred thousand-year-old towering tree on the sold-off land.


LANDUSE IN A CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT


Further behind Ming’s home is an area that is presently inundated. In mid-September 2019, the rise in river water level has resulted in flooding of most inland environments. Luckily for Ming, she has not planted much this season. As an experienced farmer and entrepreneur, Ming has learnt to maximise landuse on her homestay which is on higher grounds by growing crops to support ecotourism.


The state of Ming’s backyard this September 2019, just behind her homestay houses.

Inundation during the wet season meant that the land cannot be used.


But not everyone is as fortunate. The recent inundation event has resulted in up to 90% loss of crops, the Khai Koh village chief estimates. Ming utilises the land more efficiently and has a lower proportion of her land submerged in water. As compared to other land owners who own a greater part of the wet environment, they are more restricted by the area that can be fully utilised.

According to another community representative, about 2000 young pomelo trees were affected. Thankfully, Ming has more mature pomelo trees that can survive through longer periods of inundation. On the other hand, younger pomelo plants propagated by air layering are more vulnerable, unable to tolerate waterlogged soils.


Flood levels marked on the wooden stilt, while Ming’s pomelo tree rests at a distance.

The mature tree has survived numerous flooding events and continues to bear fruit.


The biophysical environment and the islanders’ decision-making are critical for progress. Generally, locals understand that the rising river water level will influence the water table within the island greatly due to the island geomorphology. In other words, higher river level results in greater inundation inland.

As such, elevation affects advantages but varies seasonally. At Khai Koh, the northern parts of the island which are of slightly higher elevation, the crops tend to be less submerged compared to crops at lower elevation. Crop advantage is somewhat flipped during the dry season. At Chung Koh, the southern parts of the island which are lower, the land retains more water, making the land more advantageous for farming.

The present solution is inadequate. With only one sluice gate built, the inland environment take several days to drain off. When questioned whether current solutions are sufficient, the village chief emphasised that funding has mostly gone to building roads as island connectivity is conceived as a higher priority.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider. With more intense flooding over the years, several villagers have expressed their hopes for better solutions.


Water rushing out from the sluice gate - the wooden sluice gate recently upgraded to a metal one.

It is found on the Southwestern coast of the island and opens when the water level inland is

higher than the river water levels. This enables accumulated water inland to be drained off.


UNDERSTANDING ISLAND LANDUSE MANAGEMENT


Landuse is a cross-cutting process intrinsically connected to socioeconomic and environmental aspects. Efficient landuse planning can address significant challenges especially those related to agriculture, food security, resource management, connectivity and community ecotourism efforts. The current landuse on Koh Trong island is simultaneously a product of mutual agreements and physical geographies.

Understanding social interactions with the environment will lead to improved solutions to environmental problems. In addition, there is room for future research to examine variable conditions of the physical environment that changes over time and place on similar islands along the Lower Mekong. Ultimately, such research can be beneficial for maximising land use in environments like Koh Trong island.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Land. (2019). Retrieved 15 October 2019, from https://opendevelopmentcambodia.net/topics/land/?queried_post_type=topic