Friday, March 18, 2011

Cambodia: World Bank Finds Botched World Bank Project, Caused Thousands of Evictions

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Botched World Bank Project Leads to Thousands of Evictions

By Irwin Loy

The World Bank botched the handling of an ambitious multi-million-dollar land- titling project in Cambodia and has done little to protect thousands of people in a lakeside slum from eviction.

That is the finding of the World Bank’s inspection panel, the financial institution’s main accountability mechanism. Unfortunately the judgement came after local authorities issued final eviction notices to many of the Boeung Kak’s remaining residents.

"The claims of the Boeung Kak lake community are serious," Roberto Lenton, the chair of the panel, said in a statement. "The issues raised involve fundamental questions of their land rights and tenure security… the panel found that the evictions took place in violation of the bank policy on involuntary resettlement and resulted in grave harm to the affected families and community."

In a series of reports and statements the inspection panel ruled that a controversial bank-funded land-titling project failed to protect some 4,000 families living around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake - a low-income community that had grown in the centre of the capital following the collapse of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

In doing so, the bank broke many of its own regulations meant to ensure its programmes would not cause inadvertent harm to local populations.

Many people in this Southeast Asian country still lack basic legal titles to their land, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge, who outlawed private ownership. The bank funded the Land Management and Administration Project, or LMAP, as part of a plan to address Cambodia’s lingering land problems.

LMAP has courted controversy by following the government’s policy to not issue land titles to some 4,000 families around Boeung Kak lake. The government declared the land to be owned by the state, even though many of the residents had lived there for years.

The government later leased the land to a developer. The Chinese-backed developer and local authorities have since told the residents that they must move to make way for a series of office towers and villas on the 133-hectare site.

The World Bank inspection panel ruled that the bank should have followed its safeguards - agreed to by the bank, donor governments and Cambodian authorities at the inception of the project - which would have allowed the residents to argue their cases for land titles. Instead bank management ignored the residents’ claims until it was too late.

"The harm the people have suffered as a result of the evictions and the following displacement… was evident to the panel team," the panel stated in its investigation report. "The panel found no record that bank management raised this issue with the government or project staff until 2009, when the situation had already deteriorated beyond repair."

LMAP managed to issue more than one million land titles to mostly rural residents throughout the country before the government abruptly cancelled the programme in 2009, complaining the World Bank had demanded "too many conditions".

But the situation for the families in Boeung Kak shows how the project struggled with its primary goal: to help the government establish an "efficient and transparent" land administration system.

"The Boeung Kak case highlights the failure of LMAP to establish an equitable, transparent and rule-based process for titling decisions," said David Pred, executive director of the advocacy group Bridges Across Borders Cambodia. "In the end, like elsewhere in Cambodia, titling decisions have been made based on the interests and direction of the powerful rather than the rule of law."

In response to the panel report, World Bank management has accepted that LMAP failed to protect the Boeung Kak lake residents, but it says the project itself wasn’t responsible for their evictions. For its part, the government has continued to insist that the lake residents are living illegally on state land, and that LMAP should never have covered the community.

It’s estimated 1,600 families have already moved from the area, accepting a compensation package totalling 8,500 dollars which requires giving up any right to the land - far less, critics say, than the land is worth and not enough to start rebuilding their lives.

The remaining residents may soon follow. Earlier this month, authorities issued eviction letters to many of the households that stayed behind.

Along the dusty lanes that trace the edges of the lake, the signs of change are everywhere.

Many of the homes have been torn to the ground, leaving stark patches of floor tiles where buildings once stood.

"I’ve seen many families taking down their homes and moving," said Simoni Mao, who runs a shop a few lanes back from the eastern shore of the lake.

Mao says he came here in 1992 as his country was beginning to look past two decades of war. He says he bought the land from a local official at the time, long before the government had any major development plans for the area. "If I had known they were going to do this," he said, "I would never have bought land here."

In the meantime, the World Bank has acknowledged that there may be thousands more families facing eviction in areas where LMAP was supposed to be helping. As part of a review of its actions, bank management discovered more than 8,400 other households who could be at risk of eviction.