With some people eating lunch off a tablecloth on the ground as children played in the distance, the scene in a small village in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district yesterday afternoon looked somewhat like a picnic.
But villagers had gathered there, a few metres from a work crew, in an attempt to prevent a development firm from continuing to dump sand onto an area they say was lush and fertile until dredging began without warning last week.
“Land is very important,” said a villager who declined to be named because he is a government official. He shares a 45-by-40-metre plot with family members who tended rice paddies and grew vegetables on it. “Now, we can’t grow,” he said.
Dredging in Prek Leap commune’s Kean Khlaing village has launched the Chroy Changvar development project, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday. The joint venture between the municipality and the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC) will build apartments, a conference hall, supermarkets and other buildings.
But villagers who live or own land there said that while they were aware of the project – some said they were offered an apartment for their homes – dredging began suddenly last week and destroyed a pond used for growing crops.
Dimanche declined to comment further, while the OCIC could not be reached.
The government banned building houses in the area in 1994, and in 1996, then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh said the area had been designated for development, the official’s wife said.
But during 1998’s national election campaign, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that land belonging to anyone who had owned it for at least five years would be left alone.
A meeting on the matter will be held today, but villagers are unsure whether that rule will hold.
“The Boeung Kak villagers’ houses were flooded by sand during development there, now the same thing is happening to us,” villager Pen Sophat said.