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World Bank Failed Lake Residents: Complaint

A multi-million-dollar World Bank land project failed to help residents in an impoverished community in Phnom Penh establish legal land titles, allowing their ouster and leaving them in limbo, a US rights group says in an official complaint.

The World Bank’s Land Management and Administrative project failed to protect the people of Beoung Kak lake in northern Phnom Penh, who were pushed out to make way for a lucrative real estate development, the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions says in a Sept. 4, 2009, complaint.

“As Boeung Kak residents were unable to transfer their customary rights into formalized land titles under LMAP, the project not only failed to formalize their tenure but in effect also degraded their pre-existing tenure status,” the Minnesota-based COHRE said in the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by VOA Khmer.

The $28.83 million land management project was initiated in June 2002 and implemented by the Ministry of Land Management but was terminated by the government in September 2009, just a few months before its final date, for having too many conditions.

Local residents said that in 2006, Sras Chak commune, which includes the Boeung Kak community, was declared an adjudication zone, but when they asked to register their land, they were denied and told they lived in a development zone.

“They don’t have a land title, but they have purchasing documents that some of the new residents bought from older ones, and authorities have recognized them,” said Eang Vuthy, a legal education officer of the Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, which operates in alliance with COHRE.

“The reason why they don’t have a legalized land title was that in 2006 or 2007 the LMAP declared that Sras Chak commune would be an adjudication zone, but the Phnom Penh municipality stopped the registration process,” he said. “They don’t have a land title, only customary rights.”

Vuthy said that according to the Cambodian land law those who live more than five years on uncontested land are the rightful owners.

There are more than 4,000 families of Boeung Kak residents, some of which have been living there for almost 20 years. Most of them are poor people, while some have guesthouse businesses. Many were evicted after the government decided in 2007 to lease the land to Shukaku, Inc., a developer.

According to the Development Credit Agreement for the LMAP, in order to mitigate the potential harm of evictions from state property, an application of the Environment and Social Guidelines, including the Resettlement Policy Framework is required, COHRE said.

However, the framework was not applied in the case of Boeung Kak. Therefore, in addition to the “weakening of the customary land rights of Boeung Kak residents, the protections that the DCA required have not been implemented by the government,” COHRE said.

More than 900 families have so far been evicted from the Boeung Kak area. Some have been relocated to Damnak Troyeung, some 20 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, while others received a lump sum of $8,500 in compensation.

“We, the Boeung Kak residents, don’t know where else to seek intervention because three countries have announced registration of our land, but now the government says the land is still in dispute and cannot be registered,” said Thai Nary, a local resident who claimed to have settled in Village 22 since 1993. “I am so hopeless hearing that. I cannot even fix my leaking roof. I almost cry every day and cannot stand up anymore. If I raise my roof a bit higher, I am scared that the company will besiege and stop me.”

Thai Nary and other residents have asked for onsite development.

The residents have asked COHRE for assistance, and the case has so far been brought to the attention of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, according to COHRE documents.

Officials at the World Bank in Washington declined to comment, referring VOA Khmer to see documents posted on its Web site.

An Inspection Panel’s report dated Dec. 2, 2009, posted on the bank’s site, concludes that in order to make an independent assessment for management compliance, “Bank policies and procedures and related issues of harm in the context of the project, the Panel would need to conduct an appropriate review of all relevant facts and applicable policies and procedure.”

The Panel, however, asked the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors to refrain from issuing any recommendation pending a management meeting with the government.

“The Panel, as it has done in similar situations in the past with Board approval, will not take a position at this time on whether the issues of non-compliance and harm raised in the Requester merit an investigation,” the Panel concluded.

After COHRE’s request for an investigation, on Dec. 17, 2009, the World Bank’s Cambodia manager, Annette Dixon, issued a statement saying the bank was ready to support Cambodia to improve living conditions of people who have been resettled or are facing settlement from land facing development.

An initiative for negotiations between the government and the Bank is underway, sources told VOA Khmer.