Additional reporting by Nasa Dip
Island living has suited Yop just fine.
A farmer on the Mekong island of Koh Meas, a 340-hectare stretch of rich, alluvial soil covered in tidy farms and orchards just downriver from Phnom Penh, Yop had reason to be content as he prepared a mid-day meal at his home.
“We’re better off here, closer to nature,” he said, cutting noodles while family members squatted among a heap of white corn from his fields, peeling kernels from the cobs.
But this isn’t the first time they’ve set down roots in the silty soil of a Mekong island. Yop says the family relocated here years ago from Koh Pich, the once-silty spit of land at the junction of the Mekong, Bassac and Sap rivers that has long since proved fertile ground for Cambodia’s booming construction industry.
“Here, it’s isolated and good for farming,” Yop said of his current island, which other villagers estimated was home to about 100 families. “On Koh Pich, it was also good for farming and much closer to Phnom Penh.”
That proximity made Koh Pich prime real estate, and as the Cambodian capital expands, Koh Meas is perhaps already being eyed as the next big thing. Though it made little splash at the time, on December 17 the Council of Ministers, the nation’s highest executive body, seemed to confirm that when it officially granted a 50-year lease of the full area of Koh Meas to the Khun Sea Import/Export Company, a major developer with ties to some of the country’s most powerful political figures.
Despite the months passing since, none of the villagers the Globe met on the island, the name of which translates to Gold Island, had heard of the decision of the council to lease their land, nor had they even been aware such a thing was under consideration.
“There’s a rumour there will be development on the island, but I’d heard for this for four or five years,” said a woman sitting in a small family shop as an uncommon, late-March rain pattered the sheet-metal roof.
In recent months, signs began to appear that something more concrete could soon be in store. Visitors from a Cambodian ministry had come to measure land, the woman recalled, but they hadn’t spoken to her when they’d arrived, only taking stock of the nearby plots. In the recent decree of the Council of Ministers, all 340 hectares of the island, including that on which the woman’s shop now sits, were identified as public and state-owned, allowing for a smooth leasing to the Khun Sear company.
Cambodian civil rights group LICADHO questioned that process and the implications it would have for villagers.
“By declaring the entire island as state land, the government is obliterating any and all occupancy-based ownership rights of families who have lived and farmed on the island for decades,” said Licadho director Naly Pilorge. “By stripping households of their legal land rights to make way for a tycoon’s private development, the government is once again putting the interests of the wealthy and well-connected ahead of ordinary Cambodians.”
It’s not yet clear what the firm, which is run by the tycoon Khun Sear in partnership with Yim Leang, a high-ranking official with the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and a leader of the National Police, intends to do with its new rights, though the towering condos and gated communities of upstream Koh Pich — also known as Diamond Island — may provide an idea of its ambitions. Land on that artificially expanded, previously developed island has in past years been priced at as much as $3,500 per square metre, as of 2014 estimates.
Phnom Penh’s stretch of the Mekong has become some of the country’s most lucrative real estate, apparently so much so that the Overseas Cambodian Investment Company (OCIC), the powerful development group that built much of Koh Pich, started work last year on a ‘sequel’ now known as Koh Norea. That ongoing project will absorb an estimated $2.5 billion of investment and will eventually fill some 125 hectares of the Mekong just off the southern tip of Koh Pich and the mouth of the Bassac River.
Koh Meas is little more than 7.5 kilometres downstream from that other island, but feels a world apart. Reachable today only by ferry, Koh Meas has one main dirt road off which trodden paths plunge into thick fields of corn, tomatoes and other crops and foliage. There is no school here for the children, nor a medical facility for the sick – not even a building higher than a stilted home.
There have been a lot of plans to promote more development on the eastern banks to the Mekong and the islands are a natural stepping stone for that activity
Meanwhile, just a short boat ride away, the mainland just off National Road 2 (NR2) is bustling with construction activity. Much of that is being pushed along by major housing developments, as well as investor buzz about the pending completion of the capital’s third ring road and the prospect of Koh Norea with its own related infrastructure projects.
“We’ve witnessed a higher than typical level of purchasing activity in the location [near Koh Meas] over the last 18 months to two years,” said James Hodge, managing director of the Cambodia office of CBRE, an international real estate investment firm. “However, until there is a project or infrastructure announced it will remain relatively quiet.”
Hodge said the ring road extension is “about the most concrete info there is” at the moment of any future potential for the mainland area. He hadn’t heard of any plans at Koh Meas specifically but said development there would fit with a broader real estate pattern in the metro.
“There have been a lot of plans to promote more development on the eastern banks to the Mekong and the islands are a natural stepping stone for that activity,” he said.
Khun Sear himself has driven the development of the big river with a satellite city project announced last year on the side of the Mekong directly opposite Phnom Penh, where he’s been accused by neighbouring residents of illegally filling in more than two kilometres of new riverbank outside his official concession zone. The far edge of that contested embankment is directly across the Mekong from Koh Meas, in the Lvea Aem district of Kandal province.
The developer did not respond to a request for comment on the lease to Koh Meas nor the prospect of land payments for the people living there today.
Phay Siphan, spokesperson for the Cambodian government and the Council of Ministers, mostly deferred comment to local authorities but did address the residents in a brief message to the Globe.
“The legal people staying down there shall be fairly compensated according to the laws,” Siphan wrote.
Though people who farm or even live on public lands can be compensated by the state in the event that their access is shut off, such an arrangement has few guarantees for the resident.
One of the biggest challenges is proving who is legally owed what. In other cases where lands deemed to be public have been converted to private use by major developers, proving residency rights has been difficult. That, plus the highly sensitive nature of land issues in Cambodia as a whole have made ownership a fraught, even dangerous question for those who live in economically promising areas. The initial development of Koh Pich saw the forced eviction in 2006 of the island’s last three families by heavily armed police.
As with Yop, many of the families who had once lived or farmed on Koh Pich have relocated to Koh Meas, according to villagers there. Koh Meas is split approximately in half between Phnom Penh and Kandal provinces.
The administrative line also closely tracks with major differences in land ownership among the residents: On the Phnom Penh side, smallholder farmers say they own their land themselves. Just down the road in Kandal, the farmers say they work on land owned by absentee landlords.
Nobody seems to know exactly who holds those lands, much of which are planted with orchards of banana and papaya. But whoever it is, those on the smallholder side of the line say they must be rich.
Vichet, a worker amidst the orchards of the Kandal side, said he wasn’t sure who owned the lands he’s been farming now for the past few years, though he has dealt with their middlemen before.
“We think there are frequent changes of owner but we don’t know the big boss,” he says, speculating that the visits of representatives has previously signified a transfer of the land.
The unseen owners provide a good deal: Vichet said he doesn’t have to pay rent for the land, nor any share of his crop.
“It’s good enough,” he said, laughing as he prepared lunch on a raised platform as other men lounged in the shade of trees and the roof of a simple structure.
Back on the Phnom Penh side, where smallholder farmers are rooted to the plots they believe they still own, the full implications of the council’s lease to Khun Sear haven’t yet been fully understood.
The woman in the family store said she’d been on the island for all her life. She had no plans of leaving and, if she had a choice, told the Globe she’d keep land over money anytime.
“We’d rather do farming here,” she said. “Some people might not care and they would sell their land, but me, I don’t want to. If you spend money in the wrong way, it is gone.”