Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Takeo Farmers Begrudge $1 Per Square Meter Land Compensation by Phnom Penh Airport Developer

A two-meter wide canal, dug by the new airport company in 2021, cut off access for farmers to their farmland on December 06, 2023. (CamboJA / Phon Sothyroth)
A two-meter wide canal, dug by the new airport company in 2021, cut off access for farmers to their farmland on December 06, 2023. (CamboJA / Phon Sothyroth)

Nearly 100 farmers in Bati district whose land had been earmarked for the development of the $1.5 billion Techo Takhmao International Airport project are appealing to the new government for a solution for the loss of livelihood after canals were dug up by tycoon Pung Khiev Se’s Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC). They claim that seeking solutions from the local authorities for the issue, which has prolonged for two years now, are ineffective.

Farmer Khut Thach, who had just returned home from selling vegetables in the market, sat down to explain his plight to CamboJA. He said he has not been able to farm on his four-hectare land due to the deep canal that was dug in August 2021. At the time, people could not protest because the area was surrounded by district and provincial police to allow over 40 excavators to dig canals, which was completed within a day.

Thach, 55, lives in Cheung Long village, Champey commune. He has been farming on the land since 1979 and was able to harvest rice two times a year, saving some for his family and selling the rest. His income was adequate for household expenses, servicing bank loans and his children’s school fees. But he is now experiencing a hard time as a vegetable seller amid the economic downturn.

Since work began on the new Techo Takhmao International Airport, which would serve as Phnom Penh’s new airport, hundreds of people in Kandal and Takeo province have had to lose their land and livelihood. Some farmers accepted the compensation and moved out of the area, using the money to buy land in other places but many others are refusing to accept the low rates.

A week ago, the Cheung Long village chief informed the farmers that the company would clear their farmlands soon, even though the compensation rate for the lands has not been finalized yet. Thach said this was the reason why farmers took to protests and continued to submit petitions to district and provincial heads.

“In the beginning [after the canal was dug], we proposed $5 [per square meter] and [reduced] to $3 but when we submitted later, there was no response. They [must have] put it away.” A month ago, when it came to the provincial authority level, farmers were informed of OCIC’s new rate, which was further lowered to $1 per square meter. “How can we accept that? How can we buy another farmland of one hectare for $20,000 to $30,000?” Thach asked, pointing out that if they were paid a compensation of $1 per square meter for the land, farmers would only be able to purchase two to three acres. “What can we do with this size?”

The canals, which cut off farmers’ access to their farmland, can be seen from behind their houses on December 06, 2023. (CamboJA / Runn Sreydeth)

Thach believes a conflict between the company and the farmers might occur when they come to clear the land because there has been no negotiation on the rates as yet. “So, why are they coming to clear our land? We’re very upset.”

In Bati district’s Champey and Dong commune in Takeo province, both the village chiefs and approximately 100 farming families, who have been farming nearly 100 hectares of farmland since 1979, asked Prime Minister Hun Manet to step in and mediate their case with OCIC. The farmers insist on being paid $3 per square meter and not $1 per square meter, which the company offered a month ago, because they (the farmers) believe their rice fields are more valuable that amount. 

‘Forced to buy rice’

Walking with a slight bend on her back as she headed home, a 76-year-old woman wearing two shirts told CamboJA reporters, “My daughter’s farmland was also affected,” when asked to show the way to the site where land was being cleared for the airport construction.

Ith Pech said her family has been farming two hectares of rice fields since 1979 until the airport project impacted their land two years ago. Since then, her family has lost its source of income and are forced to buy rice from outside, appealing to the new Prime Minister to help her village.

“Let Samdech Hun Manet solve our land [matter] because we are so poor. [We] have taken a bank loan [and] are [paying] in installments but now we can’t farm and everyone can only [survive by] selling [foodstuff] to earn [an] income for loan repayments,” she said.

Villager Ith Pech who has lost two hectares of her family farmland, expresses dissatisfaction with the compensation offered by the new airport company on December 06, 2023. (CamboJA / Phon Sothyroth)

If the case does not get not solved, Pech said the people would lose faith in the new government. She opined that if Hun Manet loved the people like his father does, the people would continue to vote for him. “But if they take our land and do not solve [the issue], we will be downhearted having run out of farmland [to work on],” said Pech.

In the past, an individual offered to buy her land for $80,000 per hectare but she declined as she wanted to continue farming. 

‘Only $1 per square meter’

According to villagers, Champey and Dong communes are located seven kilometers away from the new airport project. They also said that every two to three days, low-altitude helicopters or drones flew back and forth above the farmers’ fields, where the company has erected border poles.

Chiv Kok Say, who is in charge of land acquisitions for the new airport project, told CamboJA on December 6 evening that the affected people’s land in Dong and Champey communes have been designated for the construction of a reservoir.

He added that the people’s compensation proposal of $3 per square meter was not feasible as the “farmlands are without title deeds”.

“The company can’t provide that compensation, because in principle the company can only provide $1 per square meter. If they agree, [they need] to do the paperwork and send their name to the company and in no more than one month, they would receive the compensation,” said Kok Say.

If farmers still do not accept the compensation, the company would continue to deal with them by “explaining” until they accept it, however, Kok Say did not elaborate on what he meant by that.

Some accepted the compensation

Both village chiefs in the two communes said the villagers will only accept $3 per square meter, while appealing to high-level government officials to resolve the people’s problems as soon as possible.

Champey commune’s Cheung Long village chief Leang Mech said he had delivered the people’s proposal to the provincial governor over the last three months but there has been no response.

“As a local authority, I think the people’s request [of $3 per square meter] is reasonable and I urge the relevant leaders of the government to help expedite the settlement for the people. [Let them] know the news as soon as possible so that they do not have to wait without an explanation.”

In his village, more than 50 families and 84 hectares of land are affected by the project. He received information about the $1 compensation last month and a week ago he got to know that there will be a clearing of farmers’ land soon. 

Mech said 12 families, who possessed small plots of land have received compensation, however, those who agreed to the company’s $1 per square meter compensation have not received any response.

Over at Dong commune, Svay Khom village chief Cheng Ly said 22 families are affected but five families accepted the $1 per square meter settlement. In the meantime, there have been several meetings with the provincial governor regarding the issue.

Ly said one part of the Cheung Long lake, which is located in Champey commune is also affected by the new airport project. Separately, the lake in his Svay Khom village might be affected by another development project as it has been demarcated.

‘Give farmlands with titles’

According to a sub-decree issued on June 16, 2022, the government “gave away” “641 hectares 46 acres” of Svay Khom Reservoir area located in Dong, Champey and Pearam communes in Bati district to TP Moral Group to be held as private property for the state. This will be developed in exchange for digging, restoring and preparing the Svay Khom reservoir and to keep an area of “154 hectares, 93 acres” as public property of the state.

In recent years, TP Moral Group, owned by tycoon Khun Sear, has received several land concessions from the government for development, especially satellite cities. These include the issuance of a sub-decree in March this year where 1,247 hectares of coastal waters in Kep province was allocated to him for the development of a new satellite city and “special tourism zone”. In 2021, he received around 70 hectares of land to construct the Arey Ksat satellite city.

Meanwhile, Ouch Phea, provincial governor of Takeo province, told CamboJA on December 7, “We already informed the high level officer​ and will bring this case up for further discussion.” However, he declined to confirm the exact timing of the settlement.

Residents fish in Cheung Long lake which is located between Champey commune and the Techo Takhmao International Airport project construction site on December 06, 2023. (CamboJA / Runn Sreydeth)

Operations director of human rights NGO Licadho Am Sam Ath explained that, in principle, there should be development in any country, but if it affects fields, plantations or people’s livelihoods, negotiations should be conducted to find a common ground. It is good if the dispute is resolved expeditiously because if it is prolonged, it would result in criticism and cause difficulties for people. The company’s work would also be hampered if there are protests by the people.

“The possibility of negotiating to reach a common ground is better than being unreasonable which causes problems,” he said, adding that no one wants to see protests. Therefore, OCIC and the farmers should find a solution, which is peaceful and acceptable to all. “The people can benefit from the development and [attain] justice as well.”

Back in Cheung Long village, Khut Thach remains steadfast on his request for the $3 per square meter rate, further suggesting that if the government wants people to live well, they should be given farmlands with title deeds.

“If it is an apartment [project], this land must be expensive, because I heard that the fourth ring road is running along that road,” Thach said, adding that if the company paid them low but sold it at a higher rate, “we would not know.” “We can only conclude that they want to do whatever they want, but if the price is reasonable, $3 is enough for us. And if [the government] prioritizes people’s wellbeing, they can give the land with the title deed to us, so people’s lives will not be difficult anymore.”