Phnom Penh's property boom has come at the expenseÂ of the capital's poor
Nearly 80,000 urban poor have been moved out of the city to make way for lucrative land developments, but many are dissatisfied with their new surroundings. Thomas Gam Nielsen and Chrann Chamroeun report
RISING property prices have spurred the eviction of urban poor from the inner city at the same time that they have forced relocation sites further into the countryside around Phnom Penh, say local and international housing rights advocates.
With the United Nations expecting Phnom Penh's population to double by 2020, they say many more poor living on valuable land in the city centre are becoming vulnerable to eviction and that the government should take action to implement property laws that are already on the books.
"The private sector is focused on achieving its goals with little attention to the social environment, especially poor people. They do not want to see slums in the city," said Din Somethearith from the UN Program on Human Settlement, or UN-Habitat.
When market prices started to rise in the early 2000s, he said, thousands of families were relocated from slums and squatter communities in the city to make way for property development.
In a survey of Phnom Penh's 41 relocation sites, local housing rights advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut counted 15,831 families that were either forced to or agreed to move as a result of urban developments in Phnom Penh - as many as 80,000 people in total.
THE PRIVATE SECTOR IS FOCUSED ON ACHIEVING ITS GOALS WITH LITTLE ATTENTION TO THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT.
An additional 4,050 families also face eviction from the Boeung Kak lakeside due to the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing development at the site.
Land price emergency
The relocation of urban poor from the city began with the restoration of private property rights in 1989 and gathered pace as the Kingdom achieved increasing political stability towards the end of the 1990s.
Din Somethearith said that during the 1990s an excess of private funding ensured support for affected communities and better infrastructure at relocation sites. In particular, he cites the resettlement of 128 families to Akphiwat Meanchey in 1999 as one of the bright spots in the municipality's housing program.
"The community leaders were able to choose the site themselves ... and the municipality brought the community to the site and they approved the better living conditions," he said.
He added that a good location - just a few kilometres from the city centre - a high level of community involvement and the presence of running water and toilets made the Akphiwat Meanchey relocation a success in the eyes of NGOs and those removed.
But by the start of the millennium - what Din Somethearith referred to as the "emergency period" - the number and size of land evictions began to increase rapidly; in 2001 alone, 12 Phnom Penh communities were forced to relocate, several because of a series of blazes that tore through their homes on the Tonle Bassac riverfront.
At the time, then-Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara dismissed suggestions the fires were part of deliberate attempt to uproot residents, calling them "a series of accidents".
At the same time, land prices in Phnom Penh started rising. Figures from the Bonna Realty Group show that the price of commercial land rose from US$400 a square metre in 2000 to $900 in 2005, and then doubled in price each year between 2006 and 2008, peaking at $2,500 per square metre in June.
These price jumps have seen a concurrent rise in the number of relocations to new housing settlements - the worst of which was the site in Andong.
Early in the morning on June 6, 2006, thousands were loaded onto trucks at the Sambok Chap slum community along the Tonle Bassac and dumped on unoccupied land at Andong, 20 kilometres outside the city.
More than two years later, the 1,600 families at Andong still do not have proper access to running water, children face malnutrition and adults have struggled to find work so far away from Phnom Penh, where many sold goods in the markets.
Manfred Hornung, a legal consultant with the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said that the municipality had evicted the families without preparing any sort of relocation scheme for the site, but had learned from the bad press received following the Andong relocation.
"In the last two years the municipality has refined its strategy," he told the Post. "They do not operate in such a crude mode any longer.... In most cases the families still face the same problems, but it is done in a much smoother and refined way."
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun acknowledged the bad conditions at Andong, but disagreed with the problem's source.
"Only 400 renters from Sambok Chap originally had the right to a plot of land at Andong," he said, adding that when it was broadcast on television that renters would have the right to own land at Andong, "greedy people moved to Sambok Chap so they could be allocated a land plot at Andong".
ORIGINAL MAP AND RESEARCH BY SAHMAKUM TEANG TNAUT
An estimated 79,155 persons were evicted or moved voluntarily from 50 urban communities as a result of spiralling land prices, as of 2007. The Housing Rights Task Force says that 15 more communities are currently facing eviction in Phnom Penh, while international studies claim at least 5.6 million people were evicted globally from 2003 to 2006.
The quality of the relocations
In June, the UN issued a viewpoint on resettlement and evictions in Cambodia, pointing out the responsibilities of the government under domestic and international law.
"Relocation sites must provide for security of tenure, minimum services and infrastructure, such as potable drinking water, sanitation and washing facilities, site draining and habitable housing. They must ensure access to employment options, health care services and schools," the UN stated.
But Mann Chhoeun said the municipality was already committed to increasing community involvement as a way to ensure better outcomes for relocated communities.
"Negotiation is better than conflict," he said, adding that government guidelines mandated the provision ofÂ "land, housing, infrastructure, education, hospital, sanitation and security" to all urban evictees.
Through the Urban Poor Development Fund, an organisation chaired by Mann Chhoeun since it was founded in 1996, families were also encouraged to save up money to build their houses through a local microfinance scheme.
Mann Chhoeun agreed that there were instances of bad relocations, but said City Hall was committed to working with NGOs and the private sector to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.
"Sometimes people meet job crises, transportation troubles and a lack of access to schools," he said, but added that the municipality was "in the process of solving these problems together with partners such as the [Development Fund] and UN-Habitat".
But Hornung questioned this line of argument, saying that the question of the quality of relocation sites overlooks a set of more fundamental questions.
"Before we talk about the quality of relocation sites, we need to talk about ownership rights, entitlements and the right of people to stay where they are. If you look at most relocation sites, regardless of their quality, they are far out of town, with limited access to markets and very few livelihood opportunities," he said.
Hornung added that the Kingdom's Land Law, passed under donor pressure in 2001, allows members of such communities to claim title to any land they have occupied peacefully for five years prior to the passing of the law - something that has been ignored in the case of most urban evictions.
Looking to the future
City Hall and local rights organisations also disagree about whether increasing urbanisation and economic growth will increase the eviction of poor urban communities in the coming years.
According to the municipality's own figures, that there are some 569 slum communities in Phnom Penh, but Mann Chhoeun said that the city authorities would "[find] resolutions to make Phnom Penh a city where both poor and rich live comfortable lives in beautiful communities".
According to the Housing Rights Task Force, an alliance of housing rights advocacy groups, 15 communities in Phnom Penh are facing eviction, and Hornung said the creation of prime real estate areas in Phnom Penh's centre will force many more slum communities out of the city.
"I assume that these people living in these villages in central Phnom Penh are completely unaware of the fact that foreign construction companies and developers are going around with plans [highlighting] the areas where they live as prime real estate areas," he said. "This will be the future of Phnom Penh's central area."
The good, the bad and the ugly of Phnom Penh's housing resettlements
In between garment factories in the Meanchey district of Phnom Penh lies the Akphiwat Meanchey relocation site. In 1999, after two years of planning, 128 families arrived at their new houses and nine years later the community seems satisfied.
"I am very happy to be at this new location with a good environment, a nice house and a nice atmosphere. There are good business opportunities here, the market is nearby, we have a school, a nice road and factories around," said Kim Thay, a 63-year-old kiosk owner.
"Before, I lived in a very dirty place, where it flooded when it rained heavily and people looked down at us and insulted us because we were poor," she added. At Akphiwat Meanchey, UN-Habitat filled the land to prevent flooding, constructed wells and paid for individual toilets for all the families.
Some of the villagers work in the nearby garment factories and others earn extra income by making meals for the hungry workers. The community leaders were able to choose the land, which the Municipality of Phnom Penh then purchased for them. They found a place close to work opportunities and services such as health care and schools.
Meas Kimseng, the architect and coordinator of the local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, supervised a one-and-half-year-long study on the relocation sites in Phnom Penh. He said the Akphiwat Meanchey should be used as an example of how to involve the displaced in the decision-making process.
Kim Thay said she will always be grateful for the help of UN-Habitat and the municipality. "My life has now changed, and I have new hope with a comfortable place and life," she said.
Photo by: THOMAS GAM NIELSEN
Pheng Sameoun, 53, stands in front of the shed where she lives with her husband and youngest son.
Andong, 20 kilometres from central Phnom Penh, was nothing but fields until June 6, 2006, when 1,600 families were dumped there after being evicted from their old community at Sambok Chap on the Tonle Bassac. Today, the same number of families pack the area, according to Dr Horng Lairapo, who treats patients at Andong twice a week as part of a medical team run by rights group Licadho.
â€œThere is no clean water, and the children have diarrhoea, gastrointestinal problems and infectious diseases from the dirty water,â€ he said.
Fifty-three-year-old Pheng Sameoun sometimes receives medicine for her stomach problems from Horng Lairapo, but it does not help her husbandâ€™s drinking problem, her familyâ€™s lack of money or their ramshackle living conditions.
â€œI have never suffered like this before. In Phnom Penh, I had a home and enough food, but when they kicked me out and made me live here, I had nothing,â€ she said with tears in her eyes.
In Phnom Penh, she sold vegetables and washed clothes, and her husband was employed. Now, they do not earn enough money to support their 10-year-old son. Pheng Sameoun still goesÂ to Phnom Penh and sells clams, when she has enough money to afford a motortaxi.
â€œWhen I feel good, I go to Phnom Penh to find money, but sometimes I stay home to cry, because I do not have anything to eat,â€ she said.
The relocation site has just 777 land plots for around 1,600 families, but the allocation process is in deadlock.
Photo by: THOMAS GAM NIELSEN
Residents of Borei Keilaâ€™s â€œgreen shelterâ€ live amongst garbage and feel deprived of their right to a new apartment at the site.
With 1,776 families, Borei Keila was the first and largest housing project in central Phnom Penh. Tang Kimseng, 51, moved to her new apartment last year, when the first three of the settlementâ€™s 10 buildings were ready for occupation. She is happy with her 4-by-12-metre home with tile floors and her own bathroom, but she questions the business prospects at the site.
â€œIt is a good house for living, and I want to thank the prime minister, but I want him to solveÂ the problem with places for doing business,â€ she said, referring to an agreement between the community leaders and the construction company Phanimex.
Phanimex planned to rent out the ground floor for shops at market prices, but the residents simply cannot afford it.
While around 520 families have moved into new apartments, others feel betrayed by the allocation process. To be entitled to a new apartment the families need to prove that they have been living at the site since 2000.
Samrit Bunly represents 120 families who say they are eligible for the new apartments, but that they have been deprived of this right by local authorities.
In July, they sent a letter of complaint to Prime Minister Hun Sen, which highlighted their poor living conditions in temporary sheds next to the apartments, known locally as the â€œgreen shelterâ€.
â€œWe are calling on the government to pay attention to us, [because] we are living in very bad conditions with poor sanitation and have difficult lives,â€ she said.
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
Retired teacher Ty Chany has lived for two years at the Damnak Trayoeng relocation site.
The 1,465 homes of Damnak Trayoeng village, 15 kilometres from Phnom Penh, were constructed by the 7NG Group, welcoming its first families in August 2006, when they left their old houses in the Dey Krahorm community.
Ty Chany, a retired teacher from the Royal University of Arts, moved voluntarily from Dey Krahorm.
â€œI am happy that I decided to come, now that I have lived here for more than two years. When I heard about the eviction [from Dey Krahorm] I felt OK because I got a good compensation,â€ he said, referring to his 4-by 12-metre house.
Though he is retired, he still teaches painting at the Royal University of Arts, but the distance to Phnom Penh makes it difficult for him to save money. He has yet to receive the legal title to his house, but when he does he will rethink his situation.
â€œMaybe I will sell my house, so I can buy a new one in Phnom Penh that is affordable, and then I can work there and make money more easily,â€ he said.
Ty Chanyâ€™s house is near a big, local market, and the site also has its own primary school and work opportunities at a nearby garment factory.
The houses at Damnak Trayoeng generally look better than the slum housing in Dey Krahorm, where around 100 families remain. The families that stayed put at Dey Krahorm are demanding either compensation that reflects the market price of their land or on-site development, which was originally promised in 2003 but has yet to materialise.