LESS than two years after they were forcibly evicted from the central Phnom Penh community of Dey Krahorm, and just nine months after they were moved from Dangkor district to Kandal province, some 180 families could be in danger of losing their land yet again. This time, however, they have placed themselves in this position voluntarily.
Since April, people living in Phnom Bat commune, in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, have been willingly pawning documents that form the basis of their claims to 4-by-6-metre plots of land at the Tang Khiev relocation site, a ramshackle collection of palm wood, bamboo and blue tarpaulin structures that house 222 former Dey Krahorm families.
Commune officials told the families in January – when the community was established – that possession of the documents would make them eligible for land titles in five years’ time.
Var Savoeun, chief of the community, said this week that he doubted most families would last that long. He said the Dey Krahorm evictees, many of them former vendors, never learned how to thrive outside the city centre, and had taken to subsisting on frogs and crabs caught from nearby rice fields.
About five months ago, 10 families pawned their land documents to supplement their meagre incomes, Var Savoeun said. By the end of last month, that number had skyrocketed.
“Now, the number of families that pawned their land is 180,” he said.
“All of my villagers are going to pawn their land. I dare not raise my face when I am walking through the village because I am ashamed that I cannot help them.”
Most families have entered into arrangements in which they put their documents down as collateral in exchange for loans of US$100. They are charged about $10 every two to three months until they are in a position to pay the initial lump sum back in full.
If they cannot make repayments, they stand to lose their claims for good.
Nai Chhornneang, a 52-year-old former egg vendor, said she agreed to pawn her land documents to support herself and her 14-year-old son. “I have nothing besides my land title, so I had to pawn it to get food,” she said.
Neither she nor any other Tang Khiev residents would identify the brokers who gave them their loans, though most were said to live in Phnom Penh and in Kandal and Kampong Speu provinces.
With the deadline for the first $10 payment approaching, Nai Chhornneang said yesterday she had no idea how she would pay it. “I am worried I will lose my land because the person who gave me the money has ordered me to pay it back,” she said. “In the case that I have no money to pay it back, they will take my land.”
The eviction of the Dey Krahorm community – a violent, pre-dawn affair carried out by police and construction workers in January 2009 – was intended to allow for development of the site by 7NG Group, a private firm. Since then, the bulk of what little development work has been done has gone towards the building of an exclusive fitness centre for company employees and their families.
7NG managing director Srey Chanthou said yesterday he did not know how the rest of the site would be developed. “We have not had a meeting with our board yet. Recently we just built a fitness centre for our staff,” he said.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the eviction and its aftermath had been deeply troubling. “We hoped that when there was a development project that the villagers would be compensated so they could benefit from it,” he said. “But this development has caused them to have no food, so now they are pawning their land titles to get food.”
Mann Chhoeun, the former Phnom Penh deputy governor who oversaw the Dey Krahorm eviction, said the government would not intervene in the community’s plight.
“It is the villagers’ right to sell the land if they think they cannot live in that area,” he said. “But they cannot live in Phnom Penh in another anarchic community like before.”