Tracking aid in Cambodia: Monitoring the resettlement impacts of the Railways Rehabilitation Project

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.

The family did not know where to report the death or to whom they could complain. Like the other families at the resettlement site, they felt helpless and disconnected from society. Women at the site reported that they do not even know the name of the village or the commune in which they now reside.  (See a short video of the situation at Battambang resettlement site here).

Many of the problems characterising the Battambang resettlement site were also observed along the Southern Line in Sihanoukville. Families interviewed in August reported that inadequate compensation rates, coupled with inadequate services and facilities at the site, have left resettled residents vulnerable to increased poverty, unsanitary health conditions, and worsened living conditions.  The costs of resettlement – both the monetary costs of moving and rebuilding a house and the lost income from foregone work resulting from the resettlement – often substantially exceed the compensation provided.  Resettled residents complained about the lack of electricity and running water and that schools, health facilities, pharmacies and hospitals were too far away.

Affected persons in Battambang and Sihanoukville consistently reported a failure to disclose information or engage in meaningful consultation. Most interviewees did not know how the compensation for the taking of their homes and any surrounding structures was calculated and thus whether the compensation rates were based on a fair and reasonable standard. Many residents stated that they did not feel as if they could influence the resettlement plan, citing instances of intimidation and coercion by government authorities–practices that appear to be alarmingly prevalent.  Not one person interviewed had been made aware of the local grievance mechanism that the Government is required to set up under the ADB policy on involuntary resettlement. Nor were they aware that safeguard policies applied to their situation and their right to access the ADB’s Accountability Mechanism if they currently suffer harm or will be harmed by the project.

According to the 1995 and 2009 ADB policies on involuntary resettlement, affected persons should not be made worse off as a result of ADB-financed projects. Affected persons should be compensated at full replacement cost for lost property. Anyone who is not eligible for compensation for land that will be expropriated for the project has the right to be resettled in a suitable location with access to all necessary services and facilities. With a view to improving the living standards of poor households, livelihood assistance should be provided to resettled families. Affected persons are entitled to information about the project, its resettlement impacts and compensation rates and they are to be provided with genuine options about which they are to be meaningfully consulted.

The problems faced by residents affected by the Project, due to either inaction or improper action, constitute a clear violation of the ADB Involuntary Resettlement Safeguard Requirements. The situation also amounts to a serious violation of the International Covenants on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, to which Cambodia is a State Party. A number of Covenant provisions have been transgressed, most pertinently, Article 11 on the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate food and housing and Article 12 on the right to health, as well as the right to water as a component of both article 11 and 12. A number of provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Cambodia, have also been violated by the poor treatment and neglect of children at the resettlement sites.

What is most puzzling is why ADB and AusAID failed to put adequate resources into supervising and monitoring the compensation and resettlement process, given the Cambodian Government’s abysmal record on forced evictions and related human rights violations. Before agreeing to fund infrastructure projects – or any other projects for that matter – multilateral and bilateral institutions should conduct a thorough human rights impact analysis. If the decision is made to move forward with the project based on this analysis, it is incumbent on the project’s sponsors to ensure that human rights violations do not occur. Australia and other States party to the International Human Rights Covenants should view this as an important component of their extra-territorial human rights law obligations of conduct.

Following the trip to the Battambang resettlement site, a coalition of concerned NGOs sent letters to the President of the ADB and the Deputy Director General for the Asia Division of AusAID calling for the suspension of funds to the Cambodian Government for the project until the harms are remedied and problems rectified, and an immediate investigation into the circumstances of the deaths of the two children, including an assessment and prompt provision of appropriate reparations. An article about the case was published on the front page of two Australian popular newspapers linking the deaths of the children to the Australian aid agency.

While in-country project staff appeared disinclined to respond proactively to our correspondence emphasizing our concerns since early in the year, ADB and AusAID senior management have both responded promptly and vigorously to our more high-level advocacy. Needless to say, it should not have taken the deaths of two children to attract the appropriate level of attention to the situation at the resettlement sites. ADB’s Director General of Southeast Asia, Kunio Senga, visited Cambodia in early December to investigate the case and raise concerns with the Cambodian Government. His visit included a trip to Battambang to interview affected families and the father of the deceased children. Top levels of AusAID’s Cambodia office are also now engaged in the matter and working to remedy the situation with the Inter-ministeral Resettlement Committee (IRC), the Cambodian government body which bears the responsibility of planning and implementing the resettlement process.

As a result of the increased engagement from ADB and AusAID, the IRC has now organized for water to be regularly delivered to the resettlement site until a more permanent solution is found and it has committed to reimbursing households for electricity connection fees. The ADB and AusAID have pledged to work with the IRC to improve resettlement processes and conditions and to increase monitoring and supervision.

However, the problems that have occurred in Battambang and Sihanoukville will be repeated for the hundreds of families along the railway lines who have yet to be resettled as the project continues unless the Resettlement Plans, already approved by the ADB, are revised so that affected families are properly compensated and assisted. Compensation rates set in the Resettlement Plan of 2006 are grossly inadequate and in some cases have resulted in people receiving in total less than US$200 to move, rebuild their homes and restart their lives and livelihoods. Most resettled families are forced to borrow money from private moneylenders, exposing already poor residents to crippling indebtedness and usurious interest rates.

Compensation rates based on replacement value for housing is inappropriate when affected families were previously living in very poor housing conditions. The ADB and AusAID should seek to do more than move families from conditions of severe shelter deprivation to replacement housing of the same standards at a resettlement site. Rather, such families should be regarded as vulnerable and should be assisted to raise their housing conditions to a minimum basic standard in terms of size, building materials and access to services.

The ADB appears to have failed to learn lessons from the National Highway One project in Cambodia, completed in 2007, in which resettled households were inadequately compensated and assisted through income restoration programs forcing them into debt and a downward spiral into poverty. The human dimension of this institutional failure to learn and tendency to repeat mistakes is hardship for many families that is entirely avoidable.

The ADB and AusAID must commit additional resources to the resettlement process. Of the combined US$105.5 million contributed to the rehabilitation of the railways, the extent of the ADB and AusAID’s contribution to the resettlement of households has been the hiring of a part-time international consultant who visits Cambodia quarterly to monitor and supervise the resettlement process.  The budget for the resettlement itself is left entirely to the Cambodian Government to finance.  It should have been obvious that the process would be severely flawed and that there would be non-compliance with ADB policies in these circumstances.

The problems in planning, resourcing, monitoring and supervision must be comprehensively rectified if the ADB and AusAID hope to see this project set a positive example of resettlement – and indeed development – in Cambodia, rather than find themselves complicit in a development model in which the poorest are forced to shoulder the burden of economic growth.

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6 responses to “Tracking aid in Cambodia: Monitoring the resettlement impacts of the Railways Rehabilitation Project

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