An NGO’s plan to build an “entire city” for the victims of a forced eviction has been backed by the Phnom Penh municipal government, with preliminary construction already under way.
The $2.2 to $2.5 million project, devised by the organisation People for Care and Learning, is expected to provide 1,500 homes for about 6,000 people, infrastructure, jobs and social services at Andong III village in Por Sen Chey district’s Kork Roka commune. The site in question, parts of which now resemble little more than a garbage dump, is where the former residents of Sambok Chab village in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district were relocated after a violent forced eviction in 2006.
PCL director Fred Garmon recently told the Post that he conceived the admittedly audacious Build a City project after becoming dismayed by the ineffectual efforts that were being made to help those wallowing in Andong III.
“I turned and looked back at the houses that we had built, and saw all the rubbish, the grey water, the culverts where other NGOs had tried to get involved,” Garmon recalled observing in July last year.
“I thought to myself, I am not willing to continue doing this – $1,000 a house. We’re building new houses, we’re not helping these people. We’re just creating another slum,” he said.
Breaking the cycle of poverty that this sordid environment generates can only be achieved by completely rebuilding the area from the basic infrastructure up, Garmond said.
In the slum these evictees have been banished to, children play in muddy paths inundated with filthy water, garbage and insects. Vath Vanna, the owner of a nearby medical clinic, says diseases bred in these putrid waters plague the village, particularly the children.
Andong III is also about 20 kilometres from the city centre, connected by a dilapidated road, making it hard for residents to travel to jobs.
After taking his solution to these problems to his board of directors, costing it and entering negotiations with the government, Garmon said it became clear that replacing the entire slum with a brand new “city” was a feasible project that had the support of city officials.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema personally travelled to Cleveland, Tennessee, in the US earlier this year to inspect plans for a potential mattress factory to provide employment in the mini-city and has committed to the project. The municipal spokesman, Long Dimanche, yesterday said the government has been helping construct new infrastructure and is now working on finding land for the mattress factory. He is not sure how much money Phnom Penh has committed to the project.
In May, Chuktema inaugurated a two-storey concrete market in Andong III village, though its stalls still remain empty.
PCL’s slick online video espouses a bold, even “crazy” solution to the problems Andong III’s evictee community faces and outlines plans for much more, including a business centre, schools, parks and proper sanitation. An authoritative narrator boldly declares over dramatic music: “We are building a physical city,” one that will be a reproducible model for the entire nation.
Garmon acknowledged those plans will face many obstacles, including the “sticky” issue of land titling, but said he was applying friendly pressure on the government to make sure villagers get their titles.
Then there will be the difficulty of building an entirely new city in an already-occupied area, a challenge PCL concedes will require the temporary relocation of some villagers; though they have said they will provide homes during that time.
Last week, residents representing 19 families demonstrated after they were once again served eviction notices because of a new road being built in the area, though authorities have said they will only be forced to move temporarily. That’s news to the mother of one of those families, 48-year-old Prum Samoeun, as is the Build a City project, which she said she will believe when she sees it.
“I would be happy if I got a house from them, and I would boil a chicken to put at the alter table to thank the angels.”
PCL says it has raised about $595,000 of the project target to date, which excludes administration costs, and has received significant contributions from groups such as Habitat for Humanity and World Vision.
Since breaking ground in February, they have constructed the market, a learning centre that also provides basic medical services, and begun working on roads and sanitation.
That leaves a long way to go before the scheduled ribbon cutting in March 2015 for a city they say will boast features rarely seen in Phnom Penh such as parks, playgrounds and median strips. But Garmon insists the project is not just hot air.
“These things are going to be a reality, there’s no doubt about that in my mind, this is going to happen, these things are going to be built,” he says.