Mekong Region Land Governance Project

Customary tenure (CT)


The Nature and Importance of Customary Tenure ​

Customary Tenure concerns millions of farmers, fisherfolk and other resource users in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam (the “CLMV countries”) and it is the basis of their livelihood and culture. Customary Tenure covers different land use types including agriculture lands, forest lands, grazing lands, fisheries, as well as sacred, spiritual and burial sites.

 Customary Tenure systems consist of local rules, institutions and practices that are based on tradition, but which maintain flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

Who Customary Tenure Concerns​

Customary Tenure concerns people who have a long-standing relationship to land and natural resources, which they depend on for their livelihoods, cultures and wellbeing.

Customary Tenure is not restricted to indigenous people and ethnic minorities. Customary Tenure also concerns non-indigenous people for communal forest, grazing land and fisheries management in particular.

Legal protections do not always extend to all groups. In Cambodia for example, only 1-2% of the population defined by the state as “indigenous” are eligible to receive communal land titles. This then excludes the majority non-indigenous population from accessing equivalent legal protection for their communal forests, grazing land and fisheries. However, in Lao PDR the government does not recognise the concept of “indigenous” and all social and ethnic groups are eligible to register land as communal or collective. The different approaches highlight how exchanges between the countries have the potential to create inclusive recognition of customary tenure.


we focus on policy and practice influence and change at regional, national and sub-national levels.

Customary tenure includes many scales and users ranging from areas of ancestral domains and historical use to communal management to individual/family claims.​

Customary tenure includes many scales and users ranging from areas of ancestral domains and historical use to communal management to individual/family claims.

In customary systems, the community manages a territory in which some lands are reserved for conservation or cultural usages. Some lands are fully communal in that they can be accessed by any community member, albeit during certain periods and for certain usages (such as pastures for grazing, or forests for the collection of NTFPs). Some areas are considered communal but are attributed to individual households for a given period and usage (for example for a short-term crop over one year). Other lands are recognised as being permanently used by a given household, such as with rice paddy land or tree plantations. This last case approaches the status of “ownership”, but it is not equivalent to the “private ownership” of Western-based legal systems. For example, even land used for permanent plantations in some customary systems cannot be sold to outsiders.

In customary tenure there are different rights for different resources (for example, to access, use, control, manage, or transfer).

The rules established by a community (customary rules) determine who can access which resources, under what conditions, at which time, and for what duration. The rules also establish if these rights of usage can be transferred or sold, to whom, and with what form of monitoring.

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