Tag Archives: Cambodia

The Economist on land and natural resources in Southeast Asia

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Economist has run a number of interesting pieces on housing, land and property (HLP) issues as well as natural resource disputes, in southeast Asia (readers be warned: the paywall arrangement now allows non-subscribers to view five articles for free every week, but I think the below pick just squeak in).

Beginning with Burma/Myanmar, a pair of articles from last week’s issue highlight the dark economic underbelly of the country’s current political reform process. A comment on the standoff over the opposition’s refusal to swear an oath to “safeguard” the current, military junta-installed constitution notes the risk that the political debate about the constitution may be a sideshow. Given that the reforms made so far have been enough to ease economic sanctions on Burma, and that the generals that have symbolically conceded political power continue to retain their economic interests, the Economist concludes that “all the boasts of political reform look less like a blueprint for democracy, and more like the generals’ pension plan.”

These concerns serve to reinforce earlier inferences (discussed here and here in TN) that a wave of dubious privatization that preceded the current round of political liberalization may have been intended to allow the military leaders of the country to cash in on their land and natural resource grabs. The extent of this rapaciousness is documented in a separate Economist article, which describes how the nearly feudal style of military occupation of the rebellious ethnic states in Myanmar has opened the door to both wholesale natural resource theft and drug trafficking:

On the back of its formal military role, the army has also built up a suffocating economic grip on the region. Across Myanmar, the national army has for years pursued a policy of “living off the land”. Battalions are obliged to become their own farmers and businessmen in order to feed themselves and pay their wages.

In my earlier comments on Burma (linked above), I raised the risk that liberalization could follow the same path as in Cambodia, where a neo-patrimonial regime has dangled the barest of fig leaves over its essentially predatory governance mode. The continuity of this tradition has been confirmed in this week’s Economist, which reports on the apparent killing by the Cambodian military of Chhut Vuthy, an activist against illegal logging who founded the Natural Resources Protection Group.

Remaining with Cambodia, it seems that what one does within one’s own borders is one thing, but that cross-border rapaciousness will not be tolerated. The Economist also reports this week that Cambodia has led fierce protests against a unilateral decision by Laos (cheered on by Thai construction interests) to begin construction of a massive dam on the Mekong River, despite a recommendation by a regional commission that further study on the downstream effects be undertaken.

Finally, HLP rights expert Daniel Fitzpatrick is quoted in an interesting report on East Timor. There, it seems the post-independence government succeeded to the ‘state land’ previously taken from smallholders by successive Portuguese and Indonesian occupiers, and is now facing a familiar dilemma. On one hand, justice requires some form of recognition of the claims of those previously dispossessed in the countryside. On the other hand, the lure of badly needed revenues from international concessions beckons.

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The ADB involuntary resettlement policy: Fifteen years on, the poorest still bear the brunt of development

by Natalie Bugalski

It has been more than 15 years since the Asian Development Bank (ADB) adopted a policy on involuntary resettlement with the objective of ensuring that “displaced people are at least as well-off as they would have been in the absence of the [ADB-financed] project.” The rationale behind the policy was a shift away from the perception that development-induced displacement and attendant harms suffered by those physically and economically displaced is a “sacrifice” some people have to make for the larger good. It is apparent, however, that despite the adoption of increasingly progressive and rights-oriented policies, the utilitarian view of development-induced displacement continues to dominate the culture and individual staff views of the ADB and many other aid and development institutions.

The report Derailed released by Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) this month (which I co-authored with Jocelyn Medallo) describes the policy and international human rights law obligations meant to protect the rights of resettled families and provides evidence of how these obligations continue to be flouted in practice. The Rehabilitation of the Railway in Cambodia Project, principally financed by an ADB concessional loan and an ADB-administered grant from the Australian Government, is affecting over 4,000 households that are being involuntarily resettled or must move back out of the railway’s “corridor of impact” (COI) into the residual right of way (ROW).

Despite decades of global evidence of the necessity of injecting sufficient financial and technical resources into resettlement planning and processes as an integral part of the infrastructure project itself, resettlement under the railways project has been treated as peripheral and has been left almost entirely in the hands of the Cambodian Government. Rather than internalizing the costs of resettlement into the project’s budgets from the start and ensuring that the full costs of policy and legal compliance are covered including though ADB and AusAID contributions, the Cambodian Government is responsible for footing the bill.

Given the well-known poor track record of the Government on forced evictions coupled with the incentive to reduce costs, the alarming result – as recorded in the BABC report – was blatantly foreseeable at the time of the project’s inception. Competent planning and sufficient resourcing from the beginning could have avoided and mitigated the hardships resettled families are now experiencing. Key findings of the report  include the following (a fuller list of the findings is appended to the end of this post):  Continue reading

New report on railway rehabilitation and displacement in Cambodia – Natalie Bugalski to guest-post

by Rhodri C. Williams

Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BAB-C) released a new report this week on displacement in Cambodia caused by donor-funded rehabilitation of the country’s railway system (the PR is reprinted after the jump, below).

The findings are consistent with bad practice in development-induced displacement everywhere – poor planning, little consultation, thinly-veiled coercion, badly located and serviced resettlement sites, resulting in precisely the type of impoverishment risks that the standards long espoused by donors such as the World Bank and (more to the point in this case) the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are meant to prevent.

However, the report also reflects a particularly Cambodian failure to act on decades of advice and occasional pressure to comply with standards that would allow the country – at relatively little cost – to be seen to live up to its international commitments and to avoid the human tragedy and bad optics associated with forced evictions. After all, it is only six months since the Cambodian Government appeared to make tactical concessions in a standoff with the World Bank over evictions in Phnom Penh, but subsequent events indicate a reversion to form.

In this case, it is also over a year since early research on the very project criticized in the BAB-C’s new report forecast the problems that the latter now documents. For instance, Natalie Bugalski guest-posted at the time on the tragic drowning death of two children sent to fetch water because water sources available at the resettlement site where they lived were “polluted by chemicals used for rice growing and … caused skin diseases and other illnesses.”

Natalie will shortly be providing TN readers with another guest-posting with observations on BAB-C’s new report. As is often the case in Cambodia, all of this will make awkward reading not only for the Cambodian government, but also for international donors (in this case the ADB and AusAid) that are responsible for ensuring that the Cambodian Government accepts their resettlement standards along with their funding. For the time being, acceptance of this principle remains elusive.

UPDATE: read Natalie’s guest-posting here:  The ADB involuntary resettlement policy: Fifteen years on, the poorest still bear the brunt of development (23 February 2012)

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Back to business as usual in Cambodia?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Followers of this blog will have noticed a pattern of periodic eruptions of postings regarding land issues in Cambodia. Last Spring, it was brought on by a decision by the World Bank  Executive Board to give effect to an earlier Inspection Panel ruling finding fault with the Bank’s implementation of land titling programs. Later last Summer, it related to the Bank’s resulting standoff with the Cambodian government over setting aside land for people facing eviction from the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) neighborhood of Phnom Penh – a staring match that the Bank appeared to win, albeit without guarantees any further reforms would ensue.

Having left Cambodia to its own devices for a while, my attention was drawn back when frequent TN guest-blogger Natalie Bugalski informed me about a recent Amnesty International report that she wrote outlining the experience of five women who have experienced forced evictions in the country. One of them, Vanny, has led protests against the Boeung Kak Lake development:

On 11 August 2011, the community achieved a partial victory when the prime minister ordered a portion of land to be handed over to the remaining 800 families for onsite housing in plots with legal ownership.

Vanny said: “A lot of people think that this is the first success of people’s demonstration… it’s a great example for other communities all over the country,” she said. Yet Vanny still feels insecure. “When I leave my house, I don’t know whether I can expect to come home or not.”

Vanny has good reason to be concerned, as she now faces a defamation charge brought by the Municipality of Phnom Penh.  In addition, eight more homes on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake were destroyed by bulldozers on 16 September, the families left homeless.

The destruction last September of the homes left out of the BKL deal support concerns that the Government may plan to tailor its concession to the World Bank as narrowly as possible. This inference is also supported by the heedless brutality with which the evictions were apparently carried out. The matter-of-fact nature of such violence is captured in Heather Stilwell’s report for Asia Calling on BKL resident Suong Sophoan’s quixotic attempt at civil disobedience:

“I was born in Boeung Kak, so I must protect my place and these people. I stood in front of the tractors to stop them and to solve this problem with peaceful non-violence. At the same time, I tell them that if you want to destroy these houses, you must destroy me first.”

Police kicked him and beat him with guns. They left him on the ground, unconscious and bloody. Then they destroyed the homes.

Natalie reported that the Government has dismissed Amnesty’s “black report” as shameful. To get a taste of official policy on land, I checked Cambodia’s London Embassy website, which is frequently tasked with composing baroquely worded refutals of international criticism (follow links to ‘Ambassador’, then ‘Media Releases’ and ‘Responses’). On the front page I noticed a curious call for investment (“Rich in farmland”) that mixed disarming candor (“it is unclear exactly what the deals with Qatar and Kuwait are…”) with an intriguing reference to working with small farmers:

The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) approved agricultural investment projects worth a combined $499.7 million in the first eight months of 2009, in comparison to $81.7 million worth of projects approved over the same period in 2008.

For investors looking to grow and process crops, Cambodia is an ideal location with plenty of land available for agricultural concessions. The Cambodian agriculture & agro-industry sector has developed significantly in recent years and has great potential for investment, employment creation and as a source for economic growth.

Qatar and Kuwait have also signed agreements to secure long-term food supplies for their countries. The UAE is also keen to explore opportunities in rice cultivation in Cambodia. It is unclear exactly what the deals with Qatar and Kuwait are, but Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hor Namhong, told reporters that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with Kuwait agreeing to finance a $350,000 irrigation project that would cover 130,000 hectares of rice fields.

Cambodia is rich in farmland and hopes to attract more investment to the sector. The country wants to develop its rice exports and therefore welcomes investors, especially those willing to work with small farmers. In return for investments such as credit and technical assistance, farmers would be contracted to sell their crops to the investor.

However, anyone hoping that this notice may portend a fresh approach to rural land and natural resource concessions would be well-advised to skim the national news page of the Phnom Penh Post. Highlights currently include a judge severely beaten by seven suspected illegal loggers and left by the roadside, as well as coastal villagers cut off by a military checkpoint in order to ease them off land conceded to a Chinese concern. In the latter case, the type of frustration expressed by urban BKL residents is evident in a less guarded form:

“If this had happened in the past, I would join the Khmer Rouge to protect my land,” said Sim Navy, adding that she was furious with the government for granting the land she lives on to a Chinese company.

So it seems that the Cambodian authorities have reverted to form? Given the scale of land grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia’s recent history, it would be unfair to expect the World Bank to tackle the issue on its own. On the other hand, it is not clear that weighty international donors and policymakers are lining up behind the Bank’s efforts. And at the end of the day, the Cambodian authorities should know better. Alongside all the reports and recommendations and rhetoric, there is the simple truth that behavior like land-grabbing is destructive of any sense of national purpose or civic trust. In an incisive blog post from last Fall, an expat in Cambodia described the effect of the despoliation of land he and his Cambodian wife had bought on one decent person:

Whilst many of the landowners had had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and had been physically assaulted, I initially told myself that we had only lost land and money. However, the events had a traumatic effect on my family. By this time my father-in-law was very sick with cancer (he has since passed away, a week ago). In those last few months of his life he began to question out loud whether he’d been a fool to have lived a life of honesty and integrity in Cambodia. He felt responsible that he had recommended the land to us because he knew the sellers to be decent people, and he regretted that he had left his family poor due to his fairness whilst other unscrupulous people in positions of power were giving their families a good life. A good man’s spirit was crushed.

Cambodia: Resolution of Boeung Kak Lake dispute in sight

by Rhodri C. Williams

TN reader Bronwyn was kind enough to update my earlier post on the standoff between the Cambodian government and the World Bank over resettlement assistance to residents of the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh. It seems that the Bank’s announcement that it had frozen funding for projects in Cambodia pending resolution of the dispute caught somebody’s attention.

As reported in the Khmer service of the Voice of America, the Cambodian government has now met BKL residents’ demands for land plots within their old neighborhood rather than assistance resettling elsewhere:

Thousands of Boeung Kak lake residents who have been fighting a protracted battle with Phnom Penh and a development company have seen their fortunes reversed and have been granted a small plot of land on which to resettle.

Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a subdecree Aug. 11, giving 1,000 families still living near the lake approximately 12 hectares of land on the planned 133-hectare development site.

On its face, this decision represents a significant concession by a regime that had, until recently, received word of the Bank’s decision with disdain. Continue reading

Breaking news: World Bank funding to Cambodia frozen over forced evictions in Phnom Penh

by Rhodri C. Williams

Today’s edition of the Cambodia Daily carries the news that the World Bank has confirmed suspending funding for new projects in Cambodia pending the conclusion of an agreement between the Government of Cambodia and remaining residents of the Boeung Kak Lake district of Phnom Penh that would allow for them to be re-housed on site.

This development marks the continued escalation of a longstanding controversy over the Cambodian Government’s legally dubious evictions of the residents of Boeung Kak. As described in previous TN postings, criticism of these and other similar urban forced evictions led the Government of Cambodia to pull the plug on a multi-million dollar World Bank-supported titling program, while simultaneously embroiling the Bank’s own country team in proceedings before the body’s Inspection Panel over charges that the same program had violated longstanding policies on involuntary resettlement.

Continue reading

Week in links – Week 21/2011

Good riddance Mr. (rat)Kom(l)adic.

– The New York Times reports on how the global land rush functions in a less permissive environment. The BRIC shows cracks as China, not satisfied with importing raw materials from Brazil and selling it finished goods, begins to make a play for control of soya growing land. Brazil fights back by doing what China has, ironically, always done – restricting foreign ownership of land.

– Both National Public Radio and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have provided updates on the state of forced evictions in Cambodia. The NPR piece puts the ongoing controversy over the Boeung Kak Lake settlement in Phnom Penh (most recently blogged on here) into regional perspective by describing similar urban evictions in the Philippines and Thailand. The ABC story also describes the ongoing evictions related to an Australian funded project to reconstruct Cambodia’s rail lines, previously described by Natalie Bugalski here. However, the most impressive quote (by David Pred of BAB-Cambodia) concerns Boeung Kak and the latest innovations in forced eviction tech:

Families refused to accept the compensation that was being offered to them, so they just started directing the sand pumping machine at the houses and literally drowning them in mud.

– For those who may have inadvertently missed the latest high drama in Bosnian politics, Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, scored a little noticed and quite possibly Pyrrhic victory in convincing Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik not to hold a referendum on whether to say nasty things about State judicial institutions. Commentators on Balkan Insights noted that the whole thing may have been a very successful bluff by Mr. Dodik, and that the political establishment in Sarajevo continues to feed the type of resentment that props up Mr. Dodik by denigrating it.