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A recent foreign-backed study of Vietnam's land system found what the people already know: it's a disaster.

A recent study has found that land management corruption has become a "source of social instability" in Vietnam. Experts warn that corruption within Vietnam's land management institutions is eroding public confidence and threatening development.

"Corruption will always hit people with less power over their lives the hardest," said Staffan Herrström, the Swedish ambassador to Vietnam, at the eighth Anti-Corruption Dialogue in Hanoi on Thursday. "It can also significantly hurt a country's investment climate and act as a brake on economic growth."

"The law enforcement and oversight system is still weak and we know that 90 percent of people's dispute[s], complaints, denunciations are related to land," he said, noting only one percent of people lodging complaints are satisfied in the end.

During his speech, Herrström cited the latest joint study by the Danish Embassy, the World Bank and the Swedish Embassy as saying that 86 percent of Vietnamese households perceive corruption in land cases and as many as 33 percent of businesses indicated that a gift or informal payment was expected when applying for a land-use certificate.

Bribes, gifts and red tape

The researchers surveyed local residents and enterprises about the process of acquiring land-use certificates and procedures related to land acquisition and land allocation.

Respondents described information pertaining to the procedures as limited and convoluted while the acquisition process was deemed "lengthy and complicated," they reported feeling "overwhelmed" by the process of applying for land rights certificates, the study found.

Applicants have had to resort to middlemen for assistance and reported paying irregular fees in return for official help. The study also brought to light a problem with "officials imposing illegal requirements on poorly informed applicants and pressuring them into paying bribes."

Investors have bribed officials to convince them to change the intended purpose of a given plot of land or the stated price of a given property. Investors may also offer illicit incentives to district-level officials to help speed up land clearance, researchers found.

Systemic problems

The Anti-Corruption Dialogue is a biannual forum where the Vietnamese government and its development partners discuss ideas about anti-corruption efforts in the country. In 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered the Government Inspectorate to host the dialogue. Sweden was invited to mobilize resources and organize the dialogue.

This year, the working group concluded that land management in Vietnam is vulnerable to corruption. They indicated that every step, from land allocation to the resolution of land disputes, is susceptible to graft.

Le Duc Thinh, a senior researcher at the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development, said that the rampant corruption problem has become more visible since 2000.

The official added that corruption can be found in all fields of land management at both the provincial and district levels. Sometimes even the victims (e.g. relocated residents) are manipulated into falsifying the stated size of the land they are about to lose, he said.

Deeds lost in the shuffle

Vietnam passed its first Land Law in 1988. The law was amended twice: in 1993 and again in 2003. Many land policies changed as a result. The Land Law stipulates that the use of land is administered by the state government, which assigns the task of land management to local authorities in each city and province.

During a related roundtable last week, Ho Chi Minh City land inspectors said that the many amendments to the Land Law have conspired to create a murky legal landscape fraught with inconsistencies. Following the reforms, land compensation prices were constantly changing and many official procedures overlapped"”creating uncertainty, even among the authorities.

They also said that land management has been largely overlooked by authorities. Dang Anh Quan, a professor at the Ho Chi Minh City Law School, said that Vietnam's land registration system dates back to the 11th century.

Official deeds were developed throughout the years but were last updated in 1945. As a result, the country had to start the registration process "from scratch."

The result was largely inefficient, he said.

Many documents and records were either lost or damaged, thereby complicating the process of determining the origin of a given piece of land, he said.

Quan further described the current administrative records system as vague and erroneous, ultimately resulting in a "failure to produce required information in a timely and adequate manner."

As a result, land administration has become an easy place for corruption to take hold, he said.

Dao Trung Chinh, deputy director of the Land Department at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said that the national policy on land management should be finalized as soon as possible. Chinh also called for enhanced supervision of the enforcement of the Land Law.

Vietnam's government has already announced its intention to modernize its land management system. At a conference in Hanoi, last month, Pham Khoi Nguyen, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said that the government aims to bring the system up to regional standards by 2020 and international standards by 2030.

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