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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - City's poor unable to hold land

City's poor unable to hold land

Group 78 residents protest at Canadia Bank’s head office Wednesday as part of a last-ditch effort to avoid eviction.

Activists say govt's titling scheme ignores its most vulnerable citizens.

THE impending eviction of the city's Group 78 community is the latest example of the failure of a World Bank-funded land-titling programme intended to improve tenure security for the urban poor, housing rights activists say.

Since 2002, the World Bank has funded a large part of the government's $38.4 million Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP), which was designed to establish an "efficient and transparent land administration system" in Cambodia by 2007, according to an early project appraisal.

The project, which also receives funding from the German, Finnish and Canadian governments, was recently extended through the end of this year.

But rights groups say that for besieged urban communities such as Group 78, which faces eviction from its Bassac riverfront site Friday, LMAP's efforts have so far done little good.

"The ineffectiveness of LMAP in securing [the] land rights of the urban poor is laid bare in the case of Group 78," said Natalie Bugalski, a legal officer at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

"Households had clear evidence of possession rights but were denied access to the titling programme," she said, adding that the dispute had yet to be resolved "in accordance with the law".

Man Vuthy, a legal coordinator at the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), which represents Group 78, said that if the World Bank does not take action after the eviction of Group 78 residents, LMAP will have "failed".

He said that World Bank officials had met several times with CLEC lawyers to discuss land issues, but that they had neglected poor urban communities involved in land disputes in an effort to maintain a stable relationship with the government.

"We know the World Bank works peacefully with the authorities, but this is the last chance for the community," he said.

"The mechanisms don't work well, and it is only the World Bank that can help them."

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal upheld a Friday eviction deadline for Group 78 after lawyers attempted to halt an April 20 eviction notice.

The government says residents are illegally squatting on land belonging to the state and to Sour Srun Enterprises, a local developer.

But Group 78 claims ownership of its Tonle Bassac commune site under Article 30 of the Kingdom's 2001 Land Law, which allows individuals to claim title over land if they have been in peaceful possession of it for five years prior to 2001. Many residents claim they have lived at the site since the mid-1980s.

Some say the strength of the community's claim only underlines the failures of the LMAP program.

In a March 4 letter from the CLEC to World Bank Country Director Annette Dixon, a copy of which has been obtained by the Post, lawyers noted that Group 78 had received several "illegal" eviction notices and its applications for land title were rejected by city authorities.

The group 78 case is ... an important test case for the implementation of the lmap and the rule of law...

"The Group 78 case is therefore an important test case for the implementation of the LMAP and the rule of law in Cambodia," the letter stated.
On April 30, Dixon wrote to Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon to inform him that evictions could "damage the reputation of the Government as it moves to undertake important reforms in the land sector".

Dixon added: "We would suggest that a temporary moratorium on evictions be declared until such a legal and policy framework is in place, which would send a positive signal."

The LMAP project's appraisal document sets out contingencies to be followed regarding land dispute cases.

The document states the project "includes support for strengthening mechanisms of dispute resolution". It adds that the project would be "scaled back if [government] commitment to a fair process of dispute resolution is inadequate".

Housing rights activists say there has been a marked lack of progress on the ground.

David Pred, director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia (BAB), said that while LMAP set out to "improve tenure security" for urban and rural land-holders and "reduce land conflict and land-grabbing", the opposite trend was evident.

"We have witnessed a significant increase in land disputes, land-grabbing and forced evictions over the past seven years," he said.

He added: "We have observed that the communities in Phnom Penh who are most vulnerable to displacement, like the residents of Group 78 ...
have been denied access to the land titling and dispute resolution systems established by LMAP."

Mark Grimsditch, a BAB legal adviser, said that just 38,502 out of a projected 198,000 titles had been distributed by LMAP in Phnom Penh since 2002.

He said a number of eligible cases - including communities facing eviction at Boeung Kak lake - had been adjudicated but fell "at the final hurdle" after being arbitrarily denied their title certificates.

Though she described supervision by LMAP's donors as "inadequate", Bugalski said most of the blame fell on local authorities.

"The primary responsibility to ensure tenure security and protect against forced evictions lies with the Cambodian government," she said.

Criticisms of LMAP came as Group 78 representatives met with World Bank officials Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to delay their scheduled eviction by city authorities.

Earlier, they protested outside Canadia Bank, which they claimed is in charge of a plan to build a bridge over the Tonle Bassac. The bridge project prompted the city to claim portions of the community's land, where it plans to build a road.

But Rath Kumnith, a legal adviser to Canadia Bank, said the bank was only providing a loan to the project and was not directly involved in it.

The World Bank was contacted for comment Thursday but had not responded as of press time.



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