By Natalie Bugalski
In October 2010, I traveled with a small research team from the rights groups Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) to Battambang in northwest Cambodia to interview families resettled to make way for the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s rail network. The trip was a part of an NGO effort to monitor the resettlement impacts of the railways project and assess whether it is being implemented in accordance with the Asian Development Bank’s Involuntary Resettlement Safeguard Policy, international human rights norms, and Cambodian laws. The ADB is contributing US$84 million in concessional loans to the Rehabilitation of the Railways in Cambodia Project (hereafter “the Project”) and the Australian Government is contributing US$21.5 million in aid.
Although we had heard from community representatives that there were serious problems at the resettlement site, we were appalled to find the families living in deplorable conditions. Our interviews at the Battambang resettlement site raised a plethora of serious problems relating to a lack of access to food and basic services, and increased impoverishment. It appears that almost all families have been forced to borrow money to survive, rebuild houses, connect to electricity (other families remain unconnected because they simply cannot afford to do so) and in some cases earn less per day than their interest repayments. Widows have been treated particularly unfairly and in some cases have not received a separate plot of land. Instead they have been told to live with their parents or children, despite having lived separately at their former location. These women are extremely vulnerable and have received insufficient support, if any at all. Every family we spoke to reported that they were significantly worse off now than before they moved. They feel desperate and abandoned.
Most alarmingly, four days after the families had been resettled in May, two children – a brother (9) and sister (13) – had drowned in a nearby pond. We were told by the brother of the deceased children and other members of the community that the children had gone to collect water for household chores. Since piped water has not been provided at the resettlement site, families there had no choice but to trek through a muddy rice field to access water from the pond, or use water directly from the adjacent rice field. These water sources are polluted by chemicals used for rice growing and have caused skin diseases and other illnesses. On this occasion the children went to the pond and never returned. The community searched for many hours, and the bodies were eventually found at the bottom of the eight-meter deep pond.