This morning I drove out to the Toul Sambo relocation site with Davy, PhD student Julie who has been doing research at the community even before the eviction, and two knitters, Mony and Rofi. Today’s visit was to meet briefly with the community, show them some knitted products and make plans for a meeting next week. A lot of families were away as Pchum Ben (festival of the dead) starts tomorrow and this is one of two times in the year when everyone (who is able to) travels to the provinces.
First some background on evictions in Cambodia in condensed form. Land values in Cambodia and especially in Phnom Penh have skyrocketed over the past few years. Many poor urban communities that have been living in crowded pockets of the city for years or decades, now find themselves occupying prime land. Many of them are eligible for land titles under the current land laws but because rule of law is a fiction here, most of them are facing eviction. Or have already been evicted.
Last week, the government canceled a World Bank project (LMAP) which had been working since 2002 to develop a fair and transparent system of providing land titles. A recent internal study showed that while the project had had some success in rural areas, it had mostly failed to secure land rights for the poor in urban areas. Its attempts to remedy this situation were not taken well by the government and Hun Sen very publicly ended the program, stating in a speech that the WB rules were too complicated and the project came with too many conditions. Those conditions: follow the law and give land titles to those people with rights to them, not to highest bidder.
So evictions continue and the recent forced resettlement of families from Borei Keila to Toul Sambo was particularly condemned locally and internationally. The reason: the majority of the families have at least one member who is HIV positive. In the process of deciding which families would be granted an apartment in the city and which would not, these families were sidelined from the start. By moving them all to a location outside of the city, far from medical care and grouped together into what other locals call “the AIDS village,” authorities have made it incredibly difficult for these families to survive. Read more about the background of the community and the eviction here and here and here.
This is the community that Davy suggested I work with and why we drove out there today. The situation is as grim as the newspaper articles tell it. The rooms are small and hot. According to Julie, a rep from Doctors Without Borders who had worked in emergency relief situations said the house construction did not even meet the basic standards of emergency housing. Furthermore, he believes that the structures won’t last for more than a couple years of heavy rains as the foundations are not constructed well. There is no running water and inadequate sewage system. Now the residents can collect rainwater but what happens in the dry season? There is nowhere to find work nearby and community members can’t even hope to establish small businesses as locals won’t buy from them anyway.
Below are some photos of the site. The first two are of the “shelters” where the Borei Keila community is living. Each family shares a room 3.5 x 4.5 meters. The third photo is of the buildings only a few meters away that are being saved for soon-to-be-evicted families from another area of Phnom Penh. These are much larger and of much higher quality.
Relocation sites don’t need to be this bad! The municipality of Phnom Penh spent as little money as possible to construct this site (one can only speculate how much was lost at various stages to corruption) and did it quickly with little planning. They moved the families there even before adequate infrastructure was put in.
It’s very likely Cambodia Knits will start to work here. Mony and Rofi showed some interested women finger puppets and Bunny Nuggets. They also showed them some basic techniques and how to cast on. A lot of women rushed in to give it a try and according to Davy they are really keen to learn new skills so they can produce something (anything) to provide for their families. The next step will be to organize the training and a few weeks later get them set up with enough materials to be able to start knitting!