The word “development” is oft-used in Cambodia, but its meaning and connotations can vary widely depending on the context or the person hearing it.

For many Cambodians who live in some of the less prosperous neighbourhoods in the capital – areas crowded with streets and buildings that are laid out in a manner that could be described as disorderly, at best – the word development inspires fear and worry due to past negative experiences some of those communities have gone through because of development projects, including displacement, relocation and the loss of their homes.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration is proving that development isn’t always bad news for the capital’s poorer communities, however, as over 500 families living along the Stung Meanchey canal in Meanchey district and commune can attest to after the recent completion of the government’s development project there.

“After they finished development at this site, I feel like I can live my life without having to be afraid,” said one 60-year-old resident, as he lifted his kettle from the stove in front of his house and poured coffee into his cup, having taken a break from his work as a tuk-tuk driver.

Vann Douen, whose head of light-gray hair gives away his age, has been a part of the Stung Meanchey canal community for more than 30 years and has raised three children there. He said that the development of the canal neighbourhood had given him a better life and he expressed his relief that the improvements didn’t force him to move his family far away from the city into unknown territory like some projects in the city had in the past.

“In comparison to other neighbourhoods, things here are much better. The government treated us with warmth and care. Now we’re no longer afraid of fires breaking out or dealing with constant floods because they’ve put in much better infrastructure,” Douen said.

Douen explained that prior to the government developing the area he had a larger plot of land that he and his family occupied but didn’t actually own – and most of the area residents were in a similar situation and had been for many years.

“I was always uneasy about it and filled with worry because I did not have a title or deed. Now, I’ve got a smaller plot of land here, but I have the land title.

“The on-site development meant that all of the land in the community – large or small – was combined together and then shared out equally and plots were distributed by random draw, and I got lucky and drew a plot near my old spot. The construction on my house isn’t finished yet, but I have already received my land title from the government,” he said.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration came up with the development policy for the Stung Meanchey canal area where over 500 families were living on land and in houses that most of them had occupied for years or even decades, but few had any legal documents to back up their ownership claims.

The policy provides every family with a plot of land four metres by six metres in size situated along the canal and made available to them after the canal development project and the road along the Stung Meanchey canal finished construction.

Many of the houses are not far from the Stung Meanchey flyover and are next to the sewage canal there, but the neighbourhood’s residents have been pleased to discover that after the government’s infrastructure improvements the existence of the canal is no longer such a blight on the area.

“It doesn’t stink around here anymore like it used to. Before, it stank almost every day. My house used to be in the canal, it was a wooden house on stilts, so we had to do major repairs on it at least once a year as it was in the water,” said Kay Kheung, who also received title to a new plot of land as part of the development project.

Another Stung Meanchey canal neighbourhood resident, Vann Nika, 51, said she has lived along the canal since 2001.

“The situation before and how things are now are so different from each other it’s like comparing the sky to the ground. Things were pretty tough around here, before. It smelled awful, the houses were dilapidated and were always afraid of fires. It was not safe at all and we always worried that one day we might be told we had to move out,” Nika said.

Nika said that with the on-site development plan they didn’t have to relocate to some distant place. They get to live nearby their places of work and their kid’s schools, but it did come with some costs.

“We just had to borrow some money from the bank to build our house, but having a mortgage to pay has turned out to be a motivating factor for my family and it pushes us to work harder and try to do more,” she said.

Soeung Saran, executive director at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), expressed his admiration for the city’s win-win policy solution for the Stung Meanchey canal area residents because it was acceptable to all parties and he said he wants to see more of these kind of solutions used in the Kingdom that don’t require uprooting poor communities, which just makes the people from them more vulnerable.

Saran said that most poor communities in these development zones – besides being faced with the challenge of forced evictions in some cases – were also dealing with bank loans and difficulties related to paying off debts and that this could still present itself as a problem for the families living in areas that undergo this kind of development.

“There have been studies from some civil society groups that have raised and urged stakeholders to help prevent land confiscation because this has made the poorer communities even poorer. We have a hard time talking about the debt owed to the banks because their income is limited and they need money for their basic needs. Some not only borrow money to pay for their homes, but for their daily expense too,” he said.

Phnom Penh municipal deputy governor Keut Che replied that, in general, the on-site developments were planned by the municipal administration in accordance with the government’s guidelines, and they have been successfully implemented in areas such as Andong village and Borei Keila as well as the Stung Meanchey community.

He said that in order to build roads, infrastructure and canals to make all parts of the city orderly and safe, the people must understand and accept this method of development because it is ultimately for their benefit.

“What we have achieved is that people now trust the government’s word about on-site developments and they understand that they will be unable to occupy as large of a space as before because we need some land for the streets and canals and so forth.

“So they all agree to give up some land and in return they get government recognition of legal ownership and guaranteed property rights, which are permanent and can be handed down from generation to generation. And the land they own will now be in an area with a good environment, better living standards, more conveniences and more businesses,” he said.

He added that the municipal administration still has many more on-site development projects in the works that will require the people in those neighbourhoods to cooperate and trust the planning being done at city hall.

“In the future, we will continue to follow this policy wherever we can and do on-site development. The places that we cannot develop that way, we will try to find other locations for them to live safely, but any policies we pursue will be done according to the law,” he said.