Despite the negative stories often attached to land evictions and urban development, there are ways to develop Cambodia without hurting its citisens, but it will take thoughtful cooperation from multiple parties.
When a country is developing it is inevitable that poor, ugly and disorderly places will be targeted for improvements in aesthetics and efficiency. Developing those places isn’t necessarily bad for residents, especially if they are part of the planning process.
Unfortunately, in Cambodia changes are made by private developers with government oversight and little or no input from the people living there.
It may seem futile to protect vulnerable urban populations from foreign investors and developers with a reputation for ruthless uplift in the name of urban improvements, but through a cooperative approach, where the interests of all parties are considered, development can be done in a way that benefits everyone.
Firstly, developing the structure of a building must be seen as only half of the project; community development is just as important. This requires an understanding of daily life and how it will be changed post-construction; however, the only resources needed for this research already exist in the people living there.
There are community architects who specialise in such work and they must become part of the process. Human rights and community development groups often focus on speaking for victims or fighting to maintain the status quo, while community architects will cooperate with developers to put together a plan for responsible modernisation.
The government has an obvious interest in encouraging investment in Cambodia, but they also have an interest reinforcing the idea that they are protecting their people. They can reconcile these interests by acting as the coordinator in discussions and plans for major development projects.
Poor communities and human rights groups can make plenty of noise, as we have seen from the villagers in Beoung Kak. Yet, without the government stepping in, companies involved are unlikely to change their tactics unless the government demands a cooperative approach.
No matter where the development happens, three major considerations must be made regarding the environment, economic, and social situation. Right now the only consideration seems to be economic; however, the other two are an essential part of long-term financial success. A city that doesn’t protect its citizens and environment will damage these resources and pay for it down the road.
There are ways to benefit both existing populations and developers. Land upgrades and land sharing are two strategies that should be considered before displacement. These agreements would demand that developers integrate new housing into their plan for the location to create comparable living space for people who are already there.
Resettlement in Cambodia, where public transportation is almost nonexistant, should be avoided at all costs. It doesn’t matter how many schools and hospitals are built near their new communities if they don’t have a job and are removed from centres of commerce.
If relocation does occur, residents should be given ample time to discuss possible options and put together a plan that will not require deep cuts in their quality of life. Rather than move the entire community en mass, human rights groups should work with the government to offer multiple options and work with people to choose the one that works for their family.
Change will happen. We need to figure out how to do it better.