The garbage-strewn, riverside area that contains Chrang Chamres commune may be unsightly, but the local Cham community fears that a future away from their niche in Phnom Penh’s far north would be far worse.
“If our houses are destroyed, how much will the government compensate us?” said Him Tola, deputy chief of the commune’s Chrang Chamres I village.
“We won’t be able to live with our relatives, and if the government evicts us from here to a relocation site, we will lose our jobs here,” he added.
It’s a common refrain. Over the years, numerous communities across Phnom Penh have been forced from their land and dumped on far away relocation sites with little or no amenities or prospects of earning a living.
However, residents and NGO workers are hopeful that Chrang Chamres will turn a page in the city’s checkered developmental history.
Piotr Sasin, country director of Czech-funded People in Need, said the NGO had developed a plan for the communes incorporating “human rights-based spatial planning” balancing economic development with the needs of the existing residents.
With careful planning and the political will, he added, even ambitious urban development needn’t require mass evictions.
“What we’re trying to do is generate a solution that will be win-win, so the city can develop and look better in a more engineered, organised manner, but at the same time, the people who have lived here can stay on their land,” said Sasin, who is partnered with local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
Sasin said the most immediate threat to the community was a widening of National Highway 5, which connects Phnom Penh with Battambang.
Many of the residents also lived on flood-prone banks that technically could be defined as part of the river and therefore owned by the state.
Only about 30 per cent of the residents lived on land upon which habitation was affected by neither factor, but Sasin said it was inevitable that area would end up being taken by a property developer eventually.
The best solution, he said, was to build four- or five-storey apartment blocks at Chrang Chamres to condense the 1,300 families into a smaller area while allowing commercial development to take place around it.
According to deputy village chief Tola, almost none of the villagers had land titles.
Sasin was quick to point out that his plan, at first glance, may resemble the failed solutions at Borei Keila and other development projects that didn’t deliver promised onsite housing for evictees.
“In all these projects, people didn’t know what was actually happening: they didn’t know what this redevelopment scheme is all about; who’s getting the flat; and why these new people are starting to arrive and representing their communities,” he said, adding that his proposal’s rent-to-own model, which involves residents paying for their homes in affordable monthly instalments, provided financial incentives for the future property developers.
In contrast to Borei Keila, Sasin said the residents of Chrang Chamres would be empowered with the tools necessary to be effective grassroots negotiators empowered with knowledge of what can realistically be achieved.
The government, he added, also had a strong incentive to compromise in order to avoid the political inconvenience of yet another activist community of aggrieved evictees.
While the residents of the proposed apartment blocks, who tend to prefer homes on the ground floor, may have trouble adjusting, Sasin said it wouldn’t be realistic to accommodate that preference for everyone.
“NGOs very often tend to please people, or give them a vision or sell them something which is not necessarily the reality or sustainable,” he said.
“Everyone should have some place to live, everyone agrees on that. But what does that mean and how do we do it in a specific place? Everyone needs to make compromises, and for those people they need to live in a completely different environment.”
On the Chrang Chamres riverfront, several locals said they’d be happy to accept any alternative to relocation, which would deprive them access to their fishing grounds and neighbourhood mosques.
“If everyone moves out, I will move out if the government needs the place,” said fisherman Mop Abdul Kareem, 31, adding that he’d try to find more fishing grounds away from government eyes.
He said he’d be happy, however, to stay at Chrang Chamres in a new apartment block.