BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Tens of thousands of impoverished Cambodians have been forced off their land by foreign investors, powerful companies and individuals in the last decade as the economy grew, pushing up property values. Land-grabbing and forced evictions are worsening landlessness - a major impediment to cutting poverty and boosting development in the country.
Here are some of the most contentious land grabs and forced evictions in Cambodia.
1. Dey Krahorm (Phnom Penh)
Set on a prime two-hectare (five-acre) plot of land facing the Mekong River, this slum had up to 1,400 residents. They say they hold land rights under a 2001 land law. Moreover, the prime minister declared the site a Social Land Concession in 2003, meaning it would be transferred to the poor, but the land still ended up in the hands of a company called 7NG.
Activists say unelected community representatives sold the land to 7NG in 2005 without the knowledge of the people living there. Talks about payments were still underway when the authorities evicted the residents in January 2009.
Scores, perhaps hundreds, of families were evicted, with violence involved. Rights activists and police said eight people were injured. Activists say few villagers received adequate compensation. The plot of land where Dey Krahorm was located is worth an estimated $44 million.
After the eviction, residents were transported by truck to Damnak Trayeung relocation site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Many are still homeless as of May 2010 and the Housing Rights Task Force said 70 percent of those relocated have moved back to Phnom Penh and are living in low-rent housing areas.
2. Group 78 (Phnom Penh)
Group 78 was another community living in central Phnom Penh on around three acres of prime real estate valued at more than $15 million, next to the Australian Embassy and in the same area as Dey Krahorm. According to Amnesty International, most of its 150 or so families who were evicted from the area in 2009 were poor street vendors, teachers or low-level civil servants who say they have been living there for nearly 20 years.
They have applied for formal title several times and have official documentation such as property transfer documents and family record books as proof of their tenure, but the authorities have repeatedly rejected them, activists said. The municipality offered four compensation options – all of them, according to rights groups, inadequate.
After threatening since June 2006 to evict the residents for different and often contradictory reasons, the city authorities did so in July 2009 using dozens of armed police. The families were forced to accept a compensation of $8,000 per household, which rights groups say is considerably below the market value of the land, is not enough to buy a house in Phnom Penh and fails to take into account the varied size of the families. The evicted now live on the outskirts of Phnom Penh but continue to work in the city.
3. Snoul (Kratie)
During the 2008 rainy season, the 250 or so ethnic Stieng families in four villages in Srey Cha Commune in Snoul district found excavators clearing their cassava plants. They later found out that in May 2008 the provincial governor had leased 769 hectares of their forest and farmland to an agro-industrial company for a rubber plantation without their knowledge.
The Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) said the lease contravenes both the 2001 land law and later sub-decrees that protect indigenous lands. After 10 months, the land clearing was stalled but the Stieng families still lack the ownership documents they need to recover the land.
The company has filed a criminal complaint criminal complaint against three village activists. The CLEC is representing them and lawyers say unless the community proves it owns the land, the charges will hang over them for years. The CLEC also says the families rely heavily on the cassava plants for their livelihoods but cannot work on the fields while the dispute is going on.
4. Spean Ches (Mittapheap 4)
More than 100 families were evicted from Mittapheap 4 village, also known as ‘Spean Ches’, in April 2007. Many had lived there since the 1980s. Activists said they face an unsubstantiated claim of ownership by a powerful individual.
Although the villagers never saw her title alleging ownership of the land, the district authorities and the governor of the municipality issued eviction notices and told them to move. The villagers’ complaints went nowhere and they were evicted.
Witnesses said 150 soldiers, military police and police armed with AK-47s, electric batons, wooden sticks and shields took part. They fired at the ground and above the head of villagers and beat the people who tried to salvage their property, resulting in 18 injuries. Thirteen men were arrested and imprisoned for more than a year and the houses were burnt down. The victims’ families said they have since lodged multiple complaints with national authorities but to no avail.
5. Chi Kraeng (Siem Reap)
This is a complex, long-running dispute over 475 hectares of rice fields in Chi Kraeng district in Siem Reap. In March 2009, witnesses said 100 police shot and injured four farmers and detained at least nine people during a dispute between two different groups of villagers.
Rights groups said Chi Kraeng farmers’ land was taken away from them by local businessmen with close ties to district and provincial officials. Media reports, however, said the dispute stretches back to 1986, when a large village was divided equally between Chi Kraeng and Anlong Samnor communes.
No policemen have been arrested in connection with the incident while 11 Chi Kraeng villagers remained behind bars. The police said they were not at fault.
6. Kong Yu (Ratanakiri)
Kong Yu (also written as Kong Yuk) and Kong Thom are two ethnic Jarai villages in Ratanakiri province in the highlands of northeastern Cambodia. The villagers and a powerful company have been embroiled in a legal dispute over 450 hectares of land since 2004.
Lawyers for CLEC and Legal Aid of Cambodia argue the disputed land is indigenous community land and as such, under the 2001 land law, it cannot be transferred to individuals outside the community. They also said the land sale contracts are invalid as the villagers had been tricked and pressured into signing them.
However, the authorities do not recognise the villagers as an indigenous community despite their evidence. In October 2008, the company’s employees began clearing the farms and a burial forest despite an injunction from a provincial judge.
Moreover, 10 legal aid lawyers acting for the communities were threatened with disbarment and possible criminal charges, activists said. Formal complaints against them were made to the Cambodian Bar Association in June 2007. By the end of the year, all but two had resigned and stopped working on the case.
7. Boeung Kak (Phnom Penh)
One of the few large open spaces in central Phnom Penh, the area around Boeung Kak lake was once home to around 4,000 families who depended on the lake for their livelihood. Residents say they have been living here since the 1980s when they returned to the city after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite their claims to the land under the 2001 land law, the land management team, financed by the World Bank, refused to give them land titles in 2007. Soon afterwards, the land was leased for 99 years to a private developer, who started pressuring the families to leave the area.
In August 2008, the developer began filling in the lake, a move activists say could lead to severe flooding in the north of Phnom Penh. Over 1,000 families have already been evicted after accepting “woefully inadequate compensation under conditions of duress”, said a group of non-governmental organisations who filed a complaint with the World Bank over its conduct. An investigation by a World Bank Inspection Panel is underway. More than 70 percent of the lake is now filled and over 3,000 families are still facing eviction.
For a feature about Cambodia's land rights "crisis", click here
Sources: Reuters, Losing Ground Report, Untitled Report, Land and Housing Rights in Cambodia Parallel Report 2009, Phnom Penh Post, Sithi Cambodian Human Rights Portal
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