Seventeen of the 20 families remaining on the contested island Koh Pich have
agreed to sell their land, signalling the end of a year-long battle that their
lawyers describe as a strong precedent.
A street in the Bassac squatter village, known locally as "Sambok Chap," or "Bird's Nest," because of the fragile, wooden construction of its makeshift homes and businesses.
The Community Legal Education
Center (CLEC), a local NGO, announced on December 1 that all but three of the 20
remaining families on the disputed island had reached a settlement with the
Phnom Penh City Hall, and would sell their land for $10 to $12 per square
"The Koh Pich case is one of the toughest we have had, but now it
is nearly finished," said Brian Rohan, technical adviser with CLEC's Public
Interest Legal Advocacy Project (PILAP), which had been representing 74
villagers on Koh Pich for more than a year.
"The result could be a lot
better, but the case has shown that people can use the law to fight for their
rights and there is no doubt Koh Pich will be important for future cases," Rohan
The island lies just a few minutes from Phnom Penh by boat, where
the Tonle Bassac meets the Mekong, and the soil is very fertile - ideal for
growing vegetables. The value of the land is high, estimated at more than $25 a
The villagers have settled for less than half that. As
Yeng Virak, executive director of CLEC, explained, this was a bad deal for the
Koh Pich families.
"The constitutional land law says the municipality
must offer fair and just compensation," he said. "But if the land is estimated
at between $25 and $50 then the compensation is not fair and just."
Virak said the municipality had no legal right to evict the residents of
Koh Pich, but the settlement was acceptable to them, because it was almost five
times as much as the initial offer and because they might have faced eviction
anyway if they had not accepted it.
Sov Hak, 58, owned a little more
than one hectare of land on Koh Pich. He is one of the few remaining islanders
who refuse to sell their properties for $12 a square meter. "I demand $25 per
square meter," he said, "If I sell at the offered price I will not have enough
money to buy new land in the same district."
According to Hak there were
still seven or eight families left on Koh Pich who would not sell for the
offered price, but they were afraid of repercussions from the municipality and
did not dare go public with their demands.
Hak said none of the
residents would be able to find property as attractive as Koh Pich elsewhere.
"The area is close to Phnom Penh and it is easy to make vegetables grow here,"
he said, adding that he made anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 riel a day selling
the vegetables he grew on the island.
Hak said he had no choice but to
move if Phnom Penh City Hall made him, but he would file an official complaint
before being evicted.
Koh Pich, or "Diamond Island," has seen its fair
share of controversy in the 18 months that have passed since the Overseas
Cambodian Investment Group (OCIG) first sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen
in March 2004 proposing to develop the island.
The Council for
Development of Cambodia, a government institution for development and investment
activities, said the island was state land and gave the green light last year to
transfer the land to the OCIG, which is owned by 7NG and Canadia Bank.
The OCIG went on to produce a presentation booklet with drawings of
high-rise office blocks, a hospital and a 600-meter Koh Pich observation tower -
and proceeded to buy out most of the residents.
OCIG offered the
villagers $2.50 a square meter. A few months later, real estate developers
estimated the value to be ten times that. But with the Phnom Penh Municipality
also offering to trade for cash, basic food and plots of land more than ten
kilometers outside of the city, it did not take long before many of the locals
had left the island.
In the meantime, PILAP was arguing the islanders'
case with authorities. In April 2005 an offer was made. Developers would pay
$2.50 per square meter of land and provide the residents with coupons for urban
dwellings owned by Canadia Bank. PILAP brought the offer to the villagers but
Throughout this year a series of deadlines from the
municipality followed. Residents were threatened with eviction by force if they
did not accept the offer. Military Police were stationed permanently on Koh Pich
on May 13, when PILAP was conducting an independent survey of the island.
So far no one has been evicted from Koh Pich and PILAP said they would
continue to represent the villagers who still refused to leave the island.