12/21/2010, 00.00
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Thousands of poor people lose their homes to real estate development and plantation farming

In today’s Cambodia, the authorities favour large-scale urban development and sugar and rubber plantations. Companies are granted long-term leases to land taken from poor urban dwellers or farmers. Since 2009, more than 27,000 people have been evicted but public protest is being organised.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Lake Boeung Kak residents have abandoned their wooden homes because water levels in the lake have risen, covering everything in mud. What was once a delightful tourist attraction has now become a sea of unwholesome mud.

Until recently, Lake Boeung Kak was one of the few remaining open spaces near Phnom Penh. It was home to some 4,000 families, living in small wooden houses, but the government ignored them when it granted a 99-year lease to Shukaku Inc, a private developer considered close to the ruling party.

The area, some 130 hectares, will be turned into residential and office space and shopping malls. Current residents will receive compensation packages estimated between US$ 1,500 and US$ 8,500, an amount so low, that most residents have refused to accept. In the meantime, the lake waters are rising.

"Shukaku Inc is forcibly evicting lakeside residents by pumping sand and mud into their homes," said Rolando Modina, regional director of the international pressure group Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.

“The message that is being sent to the remaining residents at the lake is that they should accept the compensation being offered to them or else their houses, too, will be buried in mud," said David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, a non-governmental organisation.

The net result is that everyone is leaving, many not knowing where to go, especially since the money offered is so small to find a new place to live. About a thousand families are left; they are the poorest, uncertain as to what to do.

Land disputes are a major problem in Cambodia, as they often are in China. Last year alone, at least 26 cases of mass evictions displaced about 27,000 people across the country, according to a United Nations report released in September.

The communist Khmer Rouge abolished land ownership during its 1975-1979 rule; many legal documents were lost during that time and in the years of civil war that followed.

As land around the main cities becomes scarce, what is left is attractive to developers to build new residential complexes and modern shopping centres.

"Forced evictions are being driven by rapid speculative investment in the Cambodian real estate market, coupled with endemic corruption and the absence of the rule of law,” Pred said. “The urban poor are being driven from their homes in Phnom Penh, which is becoming an exclusive domain of the wealthy.”

The capital is indeed undergoing heavy development after projects stalled during the global financial crisis two years ago. Last year, the government passed a law giving itself the power to seize private property for public development projects.

At the same time, what is happening in and near the cities is happening in the countryside as well. Farmland seized by the authorities is granted to big sugar and rubber companies.

Under Cambodian law, a person who has lived in any one place unchallenged for five years or more has rights to that land.

Most Lake Kak dwellers began living on or near the lake in the 1980s. In recent months, they have staged dozens of demonstrations, which have been quickly dispersed by police.

Sok Sambath, the governor of the Phnom Penh’s Daunh Penh district, which includes the lake, described the development as "a good thing" for the area and said residents had to accept compensation.

Until recently, the eastern edge of Lake Boeung Kak was a popular tourist stretch, with many guesthouses and bars lining the shore. The lake now resembles a large sand dune and has lost its allure. Tourists are staying away and hotels are closing.

The local economy has been completely turned upside down to profit real estate development.

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