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Cambodia Microcosm 3 – Our Land Issue and the Neighbourhood

The picture that appears here is the latest one that I will keep taking as and when our land and property is inundated because of landfill and new road construction that blocked previous natural drainage.  This blog documents the story including representations to authorities that have allowed this to happen and so creating stagnant mosquito and sewage-infested stretches of water that are serious new health hazards. Already in this picture early 2018 monsoon season rains have overwhelmed our previous drainage that worked well over the last 20 years.

For the very latest please see my latest Tweet here and one before here.

This is not only a third blog about our Takhmau neighbourhood but a complete documentation of how our property and neighbours have been affected by land development decisions forced upon us.  In this sense it qualifies as a "microcosm" because so many communities across Cambodia have been affected in the same way.  There is one difference though.  For many of those, the first they learn about such development is when strange people come to measure up land, and in some cases even when bulldozers move in. Cambodia is supposed to have planning laws but they are applied inconsistently.

Cambodia's 2001 Land Law gave the right of ownership and protection to anyone occupying land for the previous 5 years, even if no formal title certificate had been issued.  As it happens, when we bought this land and property in 2001, a certificate was issued, then the only proper legal type that existed and was recognized in Cambodia.

The question is whether the various moves by developers and authorities are above-board for legitimate better land-use and to develop the country? Or are they just wanting to make money?  Certainly there has been no effort at all to consult properly and negotiate a mutually-acceptable solution. Above all - the starting point - we and other neighbours were here first, legally too!

There is a sister-blog to this one with the idea of not just being negative in criticism but to show that there are better ways of doing things, in this case, in the planning processes.  Apart from the sad case of the Boeung Kak Lake community who had lost their homes, and Phnom Penh City a wonderful amenity, the way we have been treated in Takhmau set out in this blog illustrates just what keeps going wrong.  

For documentation purposes, items here are entered chronologically. You may want to advance to the end to see the latest situation and scroll back for the history.

1.  In the beginning (2001):

Google Earth images of out land 2010 and 2018.
The first image was taken when Google Earth was younger without the high-definition we obtain today.  A larger version of the June 2018 image is shown below. Nevertheless even with this one the most marked change is the landfill and road construction to the South of our property.  Other visible features, all of new development without any local public consultation, are the commercial buildings and the condominiums - largest rooves in blue and terracotta red; the 8 grey blocks at the left end of our road.



This is the Land and Property Title Deed issued when we bought the property in the form then operating officially. The previous owners; my wife and her family, a colleague (translator) attended with me plus officials from the Sangkhat (Commune or local authority) and the then Land authority. The document as you see was updated to be in the name of my Cambodian wife solely as at that time foreigners were not allowed to own property.  For reasons I explained in another blog (snag) one key change was made. We have kept the original document and have not allowed authorities to take it despite numerous requests.

The view below is from our property looking West remaining like this for 20 years until this year when the landfill began. Even here you can see how it gently sloped down away from us, draining all the land around us.


For 8 years we lived peacefully and amicably including with authorities. In fact as the first and only expatriate in the area they accorded me high status.  Directions not just to us but to anything in the vicinity is referred to "House Barang".

The first negative encounter with officialdom was in 2008 when the Water utility decided to drill outside our house. Now that proceeded without prior consultation and warning. However after complaining to the Chief, in fairness to them, not only did they apologize; they reinstated (and improved) the road, and no works have been done since. Click the link for full story. Please note that the images below after landfill are taken from the exact same spot for comparison purposes.


Now one small event that we noticed but did not act upon - with sinister results later - was when our neighbour encroached on the small little-used path along one side of the property.  I tell that story "Mrs Border Marker" in an earlier blog but repeat it below. Here is an extract from the submission we provided to the Land Ministry, with the path restored, and by contrast the same view right (6 June 2018) from the new raised concrete road just after a tropical downpour.



2.  Let the show begin (2011):

Whenever something unusual happens in Cambodia, and in much of the world, a crowd soon emerges.  There is an air of excitement. That is what happened when my usually tranquil in-house computing tasks were disturbed by a melee outside. We all had visitors and ours was the first house.  The man-in-charge told me that the Prime Minister had ordered them to measure our land. Now at that time the PM had indeed set up his own Land-Titling Youth Volunteer Scheme, so it was not a total surprise they should come to his and our back-yard.  As it happens, these visitors were not the youths but the regular technical staff.  They were very thorough; in fact taking care to measure the land exactly as it was not square, with four different boundaries and narrowing from front to the back.

Here is the actual paper given to me by the technicians showing their measurements.



The technicians' drawing and measurements can be seen clearly even though I used the same paper to check them and do my own calculations.  There is a small difference between us and I used a more accurate mathematical way to work out the size in square metres.  Basically however the total comes to between 1,875 to 1,916 sq metres – almost as in the original land purchase document that showed 1,861.  A physical check to this day shows that the original walls as built by previous owners are intact and unchanged

3.  "Look, this is how we do things in Cambodia!"

(Mrs Border Marker (extract from Blog Microcosm 2. Full story here, scroll down)

Mrs Border Marker (Mrs BM) is the cause of our woes with the Commune Chief and the Provincial Land Ministry Boys. As explained above she had encroached on the former path beside outside our land. As the track was not used often the neighbour with a tiny house (see picture below) once reached by it wasn’t perturbed. She did not go out much and to come and go she could still wander through Mrs BM’s own land.

As well as the visit by the Land Ministry Cadastral boys “On the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen”, we heard that the owner of the vacant plot next to us had changed hands and the new owner wanted to develop it.  Like many land-owners, he wanted to divide it up in to small plots, then to sell them on for a handsome profit.  I warn you here that there is much more to this story that I cannot reveal here, to do with a connection he may have had with authorities.  Suffice to say that he had one slight problem.  There was no access, no road to it.  Mrs BM and the land-owner at the other side had seen to that. The Ministry boys then informed us adding a new twist: “PM Hun Sen wants the land back for a new 5 metre-wide road”. That was to be wider than our main road.  Mrs BM had been quick off-the-mark. She told the Ministry boys that we had taken the path, not her!  That was despite remaining physical evidence of where the track was and that our clearly old original boundary wall was exactly in line with Mr Big Wig’s boundary wall.  I told them “Sorry, no can do but I am happy to meet the Prime Minister to see how we can help him!”  My wife was summoned to the Commune Office, made to pay “Tea Money” and a $30 fee (no receipt) for a search of old land records stored in Phnom Penh.

The planned cut in our land for a new road, not only to be taken without compensation but we would have to incur the cost of the works including a new boundary wall – you can see that it is no longer in line with Mr Big Wig’s. It shows 3 metres from Mrs BM and 2 metres from us, but they demanded 3 metres from us.

To our surprise, the search confirmed that indeed our border was correct; our wall had not been moved.  It was Mrs BM who had to give back her ill-gotten gains and compensate the neighbour who’d paid her for some of it. In the event the Ministry boys took closer to 3 metres from her, not the 2 they wanted from her and twice the 1 metre of the original track!

Then the Ministry Boys came to us again: “You have to give 3 metres  (x 67) of your land at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the name of local development. If you disagree you can go to the court!  I replied “We do not want to sell it as my wife may have relatives who need land in future, but if the Prime Minister personally insists, we can sell it to him at the appropriate market price, plus build a new wall; and replace the fruit trees and chicken-house.  

The wife was summoned again to the Commune Office where they tried another tack. They offered her a new land certificate, the new national official ones recently introduced to replace the previous ones issued at commune-level.  She could sign for it straightaway and take it.  She said that she must check it first with me. Folks have a habit of asking her to sign or thumbprint things that she shouldn’t, as mentioned in Microcosm 1.  I had to go to the office to inspect it and the new plan for our street. Well you know what they showed – our land cut - as appears in the photograph I took.

My job means that I am aware of laws and rights in Cambodia including how the system should work. Therefore we exercised our right to object to the proposal.  A letter was prepared in Khmer and English, we both signed it and went to the offices to deliver it.  To my surprise they all refused to accept our letters, at first finding fault with some wording that we changed, and then insisting that the only person who could accept the letter was not there and they had no idea when he would be there.  This was at the Kandal Provincial Land Cadastral Office. By chance our Commune Chief was there to observe it all.  Therefore we ended up revamping the letter again and delivering it personally as well as by registered mail to the Minister; his Provincial Director, and the Commune.  We know it was received as the Commune Chief berated me publically about "wanting to keep fruit trees!"

In all we did this three times, the third time addressed to and delivered to the Prime Minister's office as this development was mooted in his name.  The English versions of the letters can be read here.

Not one reply, telephone call, or official response has been made to any of them.

As well as the formal objections to the plan and questioning the legality of the way they were employing duress, I did ask for a full hydro-logical survey before construction was approved. Artificial drainage although not as good as natural drainage could be installed from the outset.


Not long after the public "Fruit-tree" harangue the wife was again summoned to the Commune Office.  This time they offered to give her the new land certificate if she signed a statement to say that she was single. She was worried that this tactic was intended to isolate her from me. I was actually more interested in seeing if they were good to their word.  She and I did not have a Cambodian marriage certificate. Back in 2000 this would only be issued by "special procedure" according to the Ministry of Interior with whom I was working, and an informal fee of US$25,000 - that was an odd insistence as they and I were teaching about countering corruption.

Well, I said, there is only one way to see if they are good to their word and what exactly they have marked as our land in the certificate, so sign and bring it.  So she signed but they refused to give it after all.

Now if you look at the latest Google Earth image of the new development next to our plot, you will wonder what all the fuss was about with this path.  You can see the new road already built right up to our boundary wall and slap-bang in the middle of our plot not along the boundary.  It is also of course at an appropriate height to link up with the new concrete road, our Street 251.

March 2017 - Power of Social Media?

I was very pleased to see that the Land Ministry had started its own Twitter account. PM Hun Sen has encouraged ministries to adopt social media. I have therefore tweeted direct to the ministry as well as copied it in to other tweets seen in this blog.

As at the date you are reading this, not one has brought a reply or any direct action.

4.  All's quiet on the Western front.....until 20 November 2017:

Nothing much happened for 3 years.  Things were probably in abeyance until certain folks sense an opportunity to strike again.  In theory our land dispute should be recorded as one of 300 still outstanding in Cambodia. There are occasional local public meetings but my wife is never invited. The Commune Chief shows his disdain for me.  On one occasion when neighbours wanted me to join them in some celebration, to drink a few beers, the Commune Chief blocked our path.  I am aware of the legal powers of Commune Chiefs in Law and that is not one of them.  However I am not keen on these celebrations any way, as the men get too drunk too quickly on spiked rice wine, so he did me a favour, but we still give money to the Commune Funeral Fund.

The wife and I returned from the UK to be told by neighbours that a new owner had acquired the land next to us and that he wanted to meet us to buy our land. Mrs Border Marker kindly left a message to warn us that now a new developer had bought the adjacent land he would want “his” 3 metre strip within our boundaries. However the landfill had already begun. Plant and trucks were busy.

The start of the great landfill - 20 November 2017
Now originally we were told that access was required to develop the site. As it happens the developer has bought more land on the other side and now has two other new access roads.  Day-by day for several weeks lorry load after lorry load of earth was delivered. Bull-dozers than pushed and flattened it. As they reached our boundary, pushing the fetid water our way, I asked them to stop.  They refused; laughed instead.

28 November 2017

The new developer visited us and wants to buy land from us, beginning with a 4 metre strip, as he wants to build a 6 metres road, i.e., wider than the new one he has.  He seems to be more reasonable although he’s hoping not pay a lot more than the $29 per metre he paid for the adjacent plot.

Land values around Kampong Samnanh are $50 to $250 per metre for undeveloped land with no built property and services.

The developer told us that according to the plans given to him by authorities, our plot is only 37 metres by 29, not 68 as it is on the original purchase documents (see above) and as measured twice by the Cadastral Commission. He said that he was  aware of our outstanding registered dispute, but he is willing to buy all our land but only at a similar low price to the one he had just paid for the adjacent plots.

Reaching the water - where will it go?
We asked the developer to consider 3 offers – based on our 68 metres.

1                To meet his request for a 6 metre road: a strip of 68 x 4 metres: 272 sq metres. We would be looking for above the minimum $50 per metre price plus works to build a new boundary wall, i.e., an offer well above $13,600.
2                To buy in addition some of the lower unused area 22 metre wide for 20 metres or so, i.e. still giving us a decent size garden surrounds. 22 x 20 = 440 sq metres, i.e. an offer above the $22,000 price based on $50 per sq metre.

We do not want to have to move away with all the attendant costs and inconvenience. This house has two reception rooms; three bedrooms, a kitchen and two bathrooms.  It has an annexe for a worker with toilet, shower, and outside covered sitting areas. It would cost over $100,000 to build similar.

3                Therefore he would need to offer towards the $250 per metre, which is similar to properties on the market nearby on the market. 68 x 29 metres, 1,972 sq metres @ $250 = $493,000.

The net area after (1) and (2) are taken out is 1,260 sq metres, even at the mid-price of $150 per sq metre, he would have to offer $189,000, so around $225,000 for the whole site.

As at the date you are reading this blog, the developer has not returned; nor made any offer, nor consulted us about the works going on adjacent to our property.

Perhaps the doggie knows what's going on?
5.  Not just land at stake but the health of people far beyond this neighbourhood Takhmau Cambodia

As the new developments are causing storm water to gather in all low-lying land, it is creating health-hazards.  The most obvious is mosquito-breeding sites this increasing the incidence of Malaria and Dengue.  However raw sewage is also penetrating these ponds giving rise to other water-borne diseases, a great risk to local children. Therefore I extended my messages to health authorities and NGOs as well as donors and researchers.  I expected the Global Fund to respond - so far it hasn't.  Nor have other "interested" bodies, concerned with Malaria and Dengue Fever, prevention and eradication, including rising antibiotic and anti-malarial drug resistance in Cambodia.

For the original Tweets and Threads please go here and here:


These two tweets were formulated to respond to reports flashed around the world about the serious potential crisis of the only effective drugs fully-failed due to drug resistance.  The current anti-malarial treatment is showing signs of failure in NW Cambodia.  All around the country small pharmacists administer drugs often in small cocktails, as people can only pay for a small amount, so they receive just one or two treatments for infections and malaria or dengue.  Such malpractice is already fatal but will grow to epidemic proportions if not tackled. For more reading on the subject and frustrations, check out Dr Beat Richter.

Obviously this blog is concerned with preventing Malaria, Dengue, and Diarrheoa - but makes the case for "joined-up" thinking and measures across public services and with NGO providers plus donors in developing countries. Remember too that wherever earth is extracted for landfill, great holes are created. When they fill up with water, children drown in them - see links here. Cambodia has a very high rate of child-drownings, one almost occurred by the landfill next to us.

One of the lessons suggested in my leading “Smarter Aid” blog that should be learned from Cambodia – “How not to do Foreign Aid – is the lack of national and regional integrated planning and strategies.  There may be policy statements but in reality most actors do their own thing; they’re not joined up.  Ministries are individual fiefdoms; donors pick their own “Target Areas and Sectors” and NGOs chase the money often sacrificing missions, re-inventing “capacities” to win it.  This is also why you find in places duplication of effort while others are neglected altogether.

As at the date you are reading this, not one of the health actors has brought a reply or any direct action. I did receive a reply from the UK's National Audit Office that is monitoring and has previously questioned the UK's large contribution to Global Fund for HIV/AIDS; Malaria and TB.

30 November 2017 




        

Our neighbours who live on a tiny plot at the bottom of our [now water-] garden are now being engulfed by earthworks that will settle up to one metre above their floor-level - a subtle hint to sell up cheaply! Their access road is also under water. Look close and you will see the baby.

You will note the black water and grey slurry - raw sewage. It is clear here and in other cases that authorities give no instructions to developers or land-fill contractors on how to handle such hazards safely during works and once they've gone.

( Update - in May 2018 their little house was demolished.)

4 December 2017


This tweet and thread shows not only the water displaced by developers pushed on to our land "The Water Garden" but what he has in mind - basically he will sub-divide his plot up in to strips to be more affordable to people. Often they will take on loans from Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs) that are keen to lend at exorbitant rates of as much as 20% interest per year. The first tweets is in response to disquiet in the world's press about Malaria increasing.


19 December 2017 


These tweets and thread reports on the fact that drainage pipes have been delivered to the landfill site. This is now marked out for construction. The new drains and pipes have been installed ABOVE the level of our land - see below.

One tweet refers to the Land Rights NGO suspended by the government for advocacy on behalf of the poor.



Other images show flooded stagnant water that surrounds properties in Takhmau caused by road construction and landfill with no drainage installed at the same time. 

27 December 2017












This tweet (left) gives a step- by-step description of how mosquitoes breed in vastly greater numbers due to the uncontrolled land development. Our land has now been flooded for over a month, with more heavy rain from Cyclone Tembin that ravaged Philippines and Vietnam





8 January 2018

This tweet and thread is to mark the fact that the developer has now installed drainage pipes on his land. At first I thought that our representations had succeeded. I was soon disappointed.

Mechanical plant quickly dug new trenches for the pipes and laid them.....but the bottom level of the interred pipes was almost a metre higher than our ground. Only the new higher landfill ground would be drained - and of course water from that level would inevitably spill away on to our lower land.


Indeed there is the added danger that if these pipes are to drain storm and sewage-water from his development's many houses, there will not only be worse seasonal floods, but the water will be contaminated.

29 November 2017



This tweet shows the flooding caused by uncontrolled development the kind of result that a very expensive World Bank project was intended to prevent, with measures for prior consultation; representation, and compensation.

The Bank’s own Inspection Panel and Board of governors criticised its performance but no remedial action has been taken.

Land dispute protestors like Tep Vanny are imprisoned and as we see authorities continue to work with developers with impunity.





15 December 2017
https://twitter.com/LowrieJohn/status/941936463708430336

This tweet and thread shows a high-density condominium block development at the end of our road in Takhmau built entirely along what was one of the natural drainage channels thatheld and drained storm-water to the Tonle Bassac tributary 2 kms to the West.  It was this kind of feature that we asked the Land Ministry to arrange a hydrological survey before allowing to be filled-in.  It never replied.

The same drainage channel was also the spot for a large commercial building erected last year, also no consultation, and the storm water accumulated over several months.  It brought out one of my funnier tweets.

https://twitter.com/LowrieJohn/status/960072854040584192

Update May 2018 - the pond has now been filled with sand - a welcome move but means one less large repository for rain and storm-water to gather, meaning more on lower land like ours.



24 April 2018 

Well, well, well has all the complaining paid off?  Have my warnings been heeded that we will be inundated as soon as heavy rains start in the next month or two?  Drains are being installed, thank you to authorities.  I do have reservations.  The pipes are on the small side and might be easily blocked, especially if they are not cleared regularly. We'll see.

https://twitter.com/LowrieJohn/status/990876340739035141






Oh Dear! The new drains are being installed half-a-metre higher than the surrounding lower-lying land.

The level of the road was raised by that height some time ago. It does seem odd doesn't it, to first raise the road-level and later to install drainage. This means for certain now in heavy rains our land will be flooded to that depth, almost certainly preventing access by motor-cycle, and having to wade through what will soon become sewage and mosquito-infested stagnant water.

I am trying to find out what money residents have had to make for this “improvement”.

Update 4 June 2018

As followers of my Twitter account will have seen the new concrete road has now been completed. It doesn't yet appear on Google Earth satellite imagery but it is easy to discern as our house and property. I have marked the road with yellow wedges.  The most vivid demonstration is of course the landfill development to the South showing very clearly, brown in colour, how it has (with the new road) hemmed in our land - meaning flooding is inevitable sooner or later.



My latest Tweet can be accessed here; my latest photograph on our Land Saga heads this blog and here I post the penultimate one, so you can see the change from one downpour to the next.


Our home is now and island, and for the dogs.....they have nowhere to go, at least not without wet bums!  This below is the scene on 13 June. The next downpour will start to immerse the drive in to the house.  (The images are reduced in size for upload purposes.)


14 June 2018

Overnight there were only light rains yet the water-level rose by 2 cms, confirming my worst fears that storm-water is now escaping from the landfill; new road, and their drains with their lowest level half-a-metre above our ground. I have made representations to the National Disaster Committee; its UNDP partner, and to the Global Fund, with a photograph and link to this blog.

16 June 2018

No doubt the water level is rising not just as a result of downpours.  The most likely explanation is water seeping from the new higher drains, as the pipes were installed without properly sealing the joints. As mentioned in Microcosm 2, our neighbourhood was once very mixed.  Today most poor have been forced out. A few remain including one family who must "walk the plank"to their house now the works approved by the ministries of Land Management and Public Works and Transportation have been imposed.
Our neighbours "walking the plank" now their land like ours is inundated. Next door to them they must contend with a stagnant water mosquito and sewage-infested pond. The building to the right is a recycling storage warehouse.
.........oo0oo.........

Why I have written and published these three blogs: Microcosm 1; Microcosm 2, + Microcosm 3 

By "microcosm" of course I mean a small snapshot of a bigger picture; a micro-examination of the macro-situation in Cambodia.  The first starts with the immediate family; the second the neighbourhood, and the third with the neighbourhood undergoing rapid development.  They are all in my view typical of the country as a whole - too typical sadly in some respects.

In every culture there is pressure to keep things within the family.  In Cambodia that is extended to certain “things MUST be kept within the family”.  In my first organisation in Cambodia, the Cambodian leader took it further to warn staff members that they must keep things within their Cambodian family.  He told them not to co-operate closely with my two foreign colleagues and me trying to save the organisation and their jobs. “Who puts the rice on your plate?” he warned.  He was wrong on that point and only he was to blame for the crisis that ensued when his Cambodian Finance Manager told donors about systematic fraud.  Yet they believed him and they lost their jobs.

The work that people like me do is tough.  It is especially tough in 2017.  We want to make life better for others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. We always try to do that in co-operation with whoever can help bring change about. In fact we actually spend more time trying to raise money from donors to do it than we devote directly to the activities bringing change. Inevitably we confront officialdom and vested interests.  They seldom welcome change.  They usually oppose it.  They feel threatened by it and respond with threats of their own.  More fearless colleagues than me have paid the ultimate price, with their lives, for this work.

In any job, if it is rewarding, challenging, and hard work, what do you want to do at the end of the working day? You want to relax, to unwind, at home and to go out and about in restaurants, pubs, whatever is your choice.

These blogs tell you that very often, too often, when I return home after work, my work not only continues but is even more intensive. I have lived this way long enough. I am now in my waning years, freed of the commitments of full-time work. However it is clear that I will still have the same pressures at home and in the neighbourhood as long as I am around.

So I must soldier on.  I have absolutely no doubt that but for me, my wife would have lost our house and home before now.  Others, within the family, the immediate one or the wider Cambodian one, feel that they have an entitlement to some or all of it and that she must make the sacrifice for them.  They will probably succeed eventually.  All I can do is to try to put it off as long as possible. And to hope that we can bring about the changes needed. It is wrong, plain wrong!

                                                                                                         John Lowrie   12 July 2017, last updated June 2018


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