Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - End in sight for Koh Pich dispute

End in sight for Koh Pich dispute

End in sight for Koh Pich dispute

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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

meter.

"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

said.

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

square meter.

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

they declined.

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.

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