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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Koh Pich: island in a stream of greed

Koh Pich: island in a stream of greed

Nin Chea, has found life tough since moving to a resettlement site 10kms from Takmao that lacks the agricultural richness of Koh Pich;

F

ifty years ago, Koh Pich didn't exist. Even today, some maps of Phnom Penh don't

show the 68-hectare island located in front of the Naga Casino complex, where the

Tonle Bassac meets the Mekong River.

But decades of rich silt deposits, the abundance of water and easy access to markets

have made this prime farming land, attracting around 300 families. Since last year,

however, the idyllic and lucrative lives of residents have been turned upside down

by the interests of a development company with powerful friends in local government.

The battle for Koh Pich, or "Diamond Island" in English, has become a case

study of whether ordinary farmers (with a lot of help from a legal NGO and lobbyists)

can take on the government and walk away with fair compensation for their valuable

land.

After months of tough negotiations, both sides say they are close to an agreement

for around 50 families living on the southern 'tail' of the island. The dispute may

end in happy handshakes, but the road to compromise has been paved with screaming

officials, bogus newspapers and armed intimidation.

City with no smoke

Seen from the air, Koh Pich looks like a giant striped slug sliding out of the Tonle

Bassac towards Phnom Penh's bustling riverfront. It is believed a ship sunk at the

river mouth and the island grew from the subsequent sediment buildup. At its widest

point it is approximately 700 meters across and has been divided up into 10- or 20-meter-wide

strips for farming. The soil is superb and crops thrive.

People started making their homes here after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from Phnom

Penh in 1979 and more have followed ever since.

"I came here to live when it was jungle and people could not get in," says

Chum Sameourn, 51, who now has three hectares at the head of the island. Sameourn

says that when he arrived in 1979 there were only three other families on the overgrown

island.

"The sangkat Chbar Ampov II [local government at the time] encouraged people

to go and clear the forest," said Sameourn, who now rents some of his land to

other farmers.

The island itself has grown with its population: each year an extra few meters of

soil are deposited at the head of the island, while the opposite bank, the peninsula

at the mouth of the Tonle Bassac, is eroded by about the same amount.

In March 2004, the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC) sent a letter

to Prime Minister Hun Sen proposing the idea of developing the island. The PM passed

the proposal on to City Hall and the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC)

- which screens all foreign investments - asking that he have the final say.

By June the CDC had approved the plan and OCIC announced internally that the company

would hire China Gezhouba Water & Power Group to produce a feasibility study

on the bank protection and dredging around Koh Pich. While OCIC is the name on the

documents, it is Canadia Bank that took over much of the groundwork for the deal,

working alongside another OCIC offshoot, development firm 7NG. Both companies are

owned by OCIC. According to an introduction to the feasibility study, obtained by

the Post, this heavy-hitting development trio plan to change the name of the island

to Koh Khlong, or Jade Island.

The name change was only the start of OCIC's big plans for the disputed island.

A booklet produced by development firm 7NG - one of the companies that make up OCIC

- shows bold plans for the island, including a 600-meter tall observation tower,

university, hospital, high-rise office blocks and a residential area. An artist's

impression also shows two bridges connecting Koh Pich to Phnom Penh and another linking

to the opposite bank.

"[The] municipality wants to make Koh Pich into a commercial center of international

standard," says Mea Sopheap, chief of sangkat Tonle Bassac (which has governed

the island since 1997), who says he attended all of the municipality's meetings about

the development.

"It is the city with no smoke and no sound," Sopheap said.

Resettlement

The first step towards making this ambitious vision a reality came in August last

year, when representatives of 7NG accompanied by sangkat officials went to the island

to measure the land and tell residents they had to move.

Many accepted, selling their land for as little as $2.50 per square meter despite

estate agents later valuing their land at ten times that amount. Others took up an

offer from the municipality that gave them a plot of land, some cash and basic food

in exchange for their piece of Koh Pich. It may have sounded like a good deal, but

one look at the land they had been given told them otherwise.

Nin Chea, 44, was one of around 100 residents who moved to Krabao Ach Kok village,

about 10kms past Takmao, southeast of Phnom Penh. In exchange for his 10 meter by

500-meter plot on Koh Pich, Chea received $500, 3,000 square meters of land, 50kgs

of rice, two cases of noodles, two cases of fish sauce and 500 grams of prahok, a

pungent fish paste.

"I was always threatened by people on Koh Pich who were on the side of the municipality

that there would be fighting on the island and if I stayed on Koh Pich my house would

be destroyed," says Chea, who decided to leave at the end of 2004.

But the hard soil, lack of water and isolated location have made life tough for Chea.

"I find it difficult to live here because I have not enough water to plant vegetables

even though I have a well and [my land] is far from the market," Chea says.

"If I could go and live on Koh Pich again, I would go there as soon as possible."

In fact, some of those who sold their land early have returned to the lushness of

Koh Pich, choosing to rent smaller plots from those who stayed, rather than attempt

to start again outside of town.

The 'coupon deal'

An artist's impression of the new Jade Island as featured in a promotional brochure from development company 7NG.

On December 6 last year, the municipality got serious, issuing an eviction notice

to the families still living on Koh Pich. They had one month to leave.

It was just days before the eviction deadline when PILAP took up the case on behalf

of 78 of the remaining families. PILAP is a legal advocacy NGO funded by the United

States Agency for International Development. The three Khmer lawyers and American

technical advisor focus all their energies on high profile cases in an attempt to

raise awareness about legal rights.

With the involvement of a US-financed legal team, the eviction ultimatum came and

went, as did a second notice served on February 15. Behind the scenes, though, negotiations

were in full swing. All of the residents accepted that their land would be taken

for the new island satellite city, but they wanted to get the best deal they could.

From the luxury of a lunch at the five-star Le Royal Hotel in Phnom Penh, talks quickly

deteriorated. Those involved in the negotiations say that officials resorted to thumping

tables and hurling abuse at PILAP's lawyers.

The legal arguments are complex, pitting the 2001 Land Law (which says those who

have lived on land for more than five years have legal rights to it) against the

vaguely-worded Sub Decree 53, which defined islands as state property that cannot

be owned by private entities.

Central to the legal strategies that were unfolding was the question of land value.

An independent appraisal by Cambodian Properties Ltd valued the land on the tail

of the island at $24 a square meter and $26 per square meter for the rest. The whole

island had a commercial value of $17 million, according to the property appraisal.

The investors, however, baulked at this estimate.

Finally, in late April this year, an offer was made. The developers told the PILAP

team that they would give $2.50 cash for every square meter of land, plus they would

provide coupons redeemable for land owned by Canadia Bank. Under the coupon deal,

residents at the head of the island would receive coupons worth $4.25, those in the

middle would get $3.50 and residents at the island's tail would be entitled to $2.75.

Most of the Canadia Bank land available was urban residential flats.

The PILAP lawyers took the offer back to the residents, but the answer was a resounding

"no".

"Cambodian people trust cash," explained Ouk Kimleng, a PILAP lawyer. "They

see the coupon and to them it's just a piece of paper."

Intimidation

Since the April impasse, the gloves have come off.

When PILAP's requests to the municipality to share their information on land measurements

were ignored, they hired a real estate group to draw up independent charts. But the

day after agents turned up with tape measures and notebooks on May 13, there was

another new arrival: a dozen armed, plainclothes military police. Officials from

the sangkat joined them, dropping hints to PILAP staff.

"They just said that if there is any problem or strange things happen on the

island, they are not responsible," said one of the PILAP lawyers.

The language was gentle but the threat was clear.

The police set up basic huts on the island, while the municipality stationed an additional

10 soldiers on Chum Sameourn's property.

Srey Sothea, a construction consultant for 7NG, told the Post that five military

policemen were stationed on the island to protect land the company had already purchased.

A week after the military police arrived, Koh Pich had a delivery of a free four-page

newspaper, called the "Sangkum Khmer News". The May 20 edition of the Khmer-language

paper had just one half-page advertiser - 7NG - and stories about how PILAP was ruining

the resident's chances of reasonable compensation. The next copy had no advertising

but was again delivered free and carried a banner headline that read: "Mr Brian

[Rohan], representative of PILAP, is damaging Khmer citizens' benefit in Koh Pich

village".

When the Post called the phone numbers listed in the newspaper a man who identified

himself as the deputy editor Sinh Samley explained that the paper was set up four

years ago, but only published sporadically. However in the past six months they have

been able to go weekly, thanks to the support of the company 7NG.

Closing the deal

In spite of the tricky tactics and heated negotiations, both PILAP and 7NG say they

are close to reaching an agreement on residents living on the tail of Koh Pich. PILAP

has laid down the final price acceptable to the residents and 7NG is considering

it. Neither party is willing to divulge their final offers while negotiations continue.

The company is also waiting on the final report on the land sizes from Bonna Realty,

that were delivered to PILAP on May 30 and will be passed on June 3.

"If the price is acceptable, I just make two phone calls from the meeting table

to the municipality and OCIC [and] the decision will come out," says Sothea.

Once the tail end of the island is settled, PILAP thinks the compensation talks for

rest of Koh Pich should go more smoothly.

"In a way this is already a success," says Rohan. "They are the big

guys - they don't [usually] negotiate with the little guys."

"It's an example that people have rights and can exercise those rights."

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