Less than half a kilometer from Boeng Khyang commune sits the site of a planned 4,000-metre runway — white flags set across the rice fields and wetlands demarcating the lines of the new Phnom Penh International Airport.
Competing labels, reading “private owned” jostle for space — these have been set out by villagers as they try and prevent the airport developers from encroaching on their land without a settlement.
Developed on 2,600 hectares of land in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district, about 25 kilometers from the capital, the $1.5 billion project is a joint-venture between local conglomerate Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, and the government’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation. The first phase is set to be completed by 2023, and by 2030 the plan anticipates 30 million passengers a year.
For those living at the site of the planned airport, however, the project has upended their lives as developers push ahead before a payout is finalized.
Two years since the project began in 2019, more than 350 affected families from three communes in Kandal Stung district and one commune in Takeo province’s Bati district are struggling to get by.
Toun Vannak, 48, from Kampong Talong village, Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district, said that since he is blocked from growing rice on the land, he has had to become construction worker and can’t earn enough to support his family.
“I am not happy at all; they are ruining my family’s finances by not allowing me to farm on my land. If the investment causes the people to suffer, I think it is better not to have such investment. The development makes my life more miserable than before,” he said.
“I understand that this is an international development, but we must do our best to make the people happy and have a comfortable life.”
Though the market rate is ten times as high, the company has offered owners just $7 to $8 per square-meter, according to Kheang Sokmean, who owns 0.8 hectares of land in Kampong Talong village.
“We cannot accept the price and with this offer we could not buy land elsewhere for farming or living,” he said.
The land in this area is particularly valuable because a water canal from Tonle Bati lake in Takeo province irrigates hundreds hectares in Bati and Kandal Stung district, especially during dry season. The canal is now blocked.
“Here we used to grow rice twice a year and now we can’t, it really affects our livelihood as people cannot do anything on this land because the company has blocked the waterway from flowing into the area,” he said.
He said that though the settlement has yet to be made, the company has long encroached on their land.
“While I was working, other villagers called me to say the company had come to clear the land, and I hurried to see it. The land is still unresolved,” he said.
Kong Khon, 68, a farmer living in Putsar village, Putsar commune, Bati district said that four villages in Putsar commune have been affected by the project, which covers a total area of more than 50 hectares of land in that commune alone.
“We do not have water for dry farming season because the company has closed the waterway. We want the government to help address the people affected by this airport development project; we are not against the development project but we need reasonable solution,” he said.
The villagers have drafted a petition, seen by CamboJA, which may be submitted to Prime Minister Hun Sen later this month, calling for fair-market compensation, a speedy settlement, and the investigation of sub-national officials whom they accuse of violating their ownership rights. According to the petition there are 400 hectares of affected land.
While a CamboJA journalist interviewed affected villagers, a commune police officer arrived and asked for journalist identification.
Ouch Sao Voeun, Governor of Kandal Stung District, said that so far people went to protest 13 times but that the local authority has no power to resolve the issue.
“We have never ignored the people concerns. As a local authority, we do not want to see people lose, but this is the government’s practice,” he said.
According to Sao Voeun, the price assessment was made before the project started in 2017, and people are demanding the current market price.
Sao Voeun said about 30 percent of affected land has already been settled with the landowners, and a runway and a terminal and now being built there. He said there are still 2,197 plots of land in Kandal Stung district that remain unresolved as their owners demand higher price.
“We also signed a contract with the company not to clear the land of the people that has not been resolved and so far there is no clearing on the land of the people,” he said, disputing the accounts of some villagers
Buying and selling of land in the area has been temporarily suspended since early 2019, in an effort to investigate rightful land titles and prevent land prices from surging. But they have nevertheless gone up in value, though there is debate over how much.
Chrek Soknim, president of the Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association (CVEA) said that before the new airport project, land price in the area stood at about $10 per square-meter.
He said the land price outside airport project currently ranks from $40 to $50 per square meter for large-scale land while a small plot could average between $60 and $70; and up to $100 for land next to the main road.
“Before the project development, the land price here was low and nobody wanted to buy, but now it is different and the price offered by the company base on internal negotiation it is not related to the market price in general,” he said.
Touch Samnang, deputy general director of OCIC declined to comment, saying that he is not in charge in the project.
Sinn Chanserey Vutha, a spokesman for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), said that according to the settlement law and law on land management urban, the price is offered appropriate.
“It is impossible to demand the market price and [the government] will try to mediate with affected people based on negotiation. And if the process not works we will implement the law,” he said.
He said as the state needs land for development, the price is offered in accordance with the state’s policy on such land. “Before the government offered only $7. Now [it is offering] $8 — a good price for people,” he said.
Vann Sophath, business and human rights project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), said the state has the right to take away private property for development to serve the public interest. But it must be fair and reasonable in its compensation.
“I understand that people’s demands at market prices are impossible, but the state and companies must consider making concessions at an acceptable price,” he said. “People will not agree [to what’s offered] because the price offered by the company or state is far different from the market price.”
Song Pichra, 21, who owns half hectare of land Kampong Talong village, said that in December 2020 the company attempted to clear his land and offered $8 per square meter — which his family refused.
“We are enjoying development, but we are not satisfied with this. This abuses the rights of citizens, and local authorities do not help when the company attempts to clear our land. We will continue to protest until a suitable solution is found,” he said.