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Asian Land Grabs Highlight Class Friction And Bureaucratic Failures

Residents of Cambodia's Trapeang Krasaing village, where villagers banished to this shantytown, located 22 kilometres outside the capital, say life is increasingly miserable, as a development boom pushes more poor from their land. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Trapeang Krasaing, Cambodia (AFP) July 24, 2007
Monsoon rains have brought new misery to the residents of this resettlement site outside the Cambodian capital. Already uprooted from their homes, the hundreds of families living here now have to contend with near daily downpours that flood their shacks with putrid water. "Living here is a misery," said Chan Bory, one of the thousands who authorities in Phnom Penh pushed from their homes in a city slum that had been earmarked for multi-million dollar development.

The pre-dawn eviction a year ago to this remote site 22 kilometres (13 miles) away was one of the largest single forced moves from Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge evacuated the capital's population to the countryside after seizing power in 1975.

"A lot of children are getting diseases," said Sithan Phann, coordinator with the Housing Rights Taskforce, a coalition of non-governmental organisations.

"There's no place for the water to drain. The people's shelter is not adequate. It's very terrible for the people living there," he said.

Forced evictions are nothing new in Cambodia, where tens of thousands have been displaced in recent years amid a scramble for land to feed the country's booming real estate market.

The facts of the Trapeang Krasaing case have become depressingly familiar, both in Cambodia and throughout Asia: the poor, with little or nothing to prove ownership, lose their land to the rich, either through trickery, shady government investment schemes or outright violence.

"Land-grabbing by the powerful -- the abuse of power to evict people -- follows the same pattern" across Asia, said Lao Mong Hay, an analyst with the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

In China, the ruling Communist Party has admitted that land rights disputes are one of the biggest drivers of rising social unrest.

Corrupt local government officials working hand-in-hand with property developers and industrialists to kick farmers off their land and evict city residents from their homes have proved to be one of the most bitter features of the nation's economic development.

In communist Vietnam, where street rallies are rare, one form of public protest has become an increasingly familiar sight in recent years: angry farmers camping outside state offices to complain of illegal land grabs.

Almost invariably the villagers say local officials short-changed them in compensation payments when they appropriated their ancestral land and rice fields to build a new road, bridge, office block or industrial park.

As Vietnam launches itself head-first into a new economic era, booking more than eight percent growth a year two decades after it abandoned central planning, the number of land disputes is only set to rise, say experts.

Expanding economies elsewhere have also sparked an explosion in land grabs.

In Cambodia, the government has granted some 59 "economic land concessions" totalling almost one million hectares (2.47 million acres) to private companies, often without fulfilling legal requirements such as impact studies.

These concessions are part of a wider government policy to make fallow land ready for export-quality agricultural goods.

But the result is that huge swathes of land used for decades by subsistence farmers are suddenly taken away, most likely without adequate compensation.

"In a functioning market system, increased demand would mean landowners would reap adequate financial rewards to secure housing," said one land rights advocate.

"In Cambodia, however, the system is so corrupt that the deals are conducted between investor and a politician who takes a personal profit to ensure that the police force rightful residents off of their land."

In India, similar "special economic zones" (SEZ) have seen farmers persuaded to sell their land to projects encouraged by the government to spur industrialisation, infrastructure development and economic growth.

So far, India has approved 303 SEZs and set aside 1,400 square kilometres (540 square miles) of land on which to build them.

While the land owners are paid, the money is never enough to sustain them in a world away from their life of farming, advocates warned, adding that SEZs have also led to violence.

Fourteen farmers were killed in March when police entered their village to evict them from land designated an SEZ area -- causing a furore and polarising public opinion.

"These are enclaves of privilege, insulated from the laws of the land -- whether it is labour laws or environment laws," said social activist Vandana Shiva.

Bureaucratic tangle worsens problem

As with many land disputes in Cambodia, the Trapeang Krasaing case highlights the near total lack of documentation -- common in countries where landownership has largely been historic and traditional -- to determine who owns what property.

Land records in Cambodia were largely destroyed during the 1975-79 rule of the communist Khmer Rouge, which abolished private ownership.

A land titling programme has made little headway in restoring ownership records, which even when they do exist are often simply ignored by those handing out eviction notices.

Tangled bureaucracies elsewhere have also exacerbated the problem, making land grabs easier to pull off and harder to resolve.

In Indonesia, the grabbing of long-neglected plots of land has led to a mushrooming of disputes that are only made worse by rampant corruption and a poor registration system.

One particular type of grabbing on the rise involves the encroachment of agricultural fields and settlements into protected forest areas and parks, a serious cause of environmental degradation.

Chalid Mohammad, executive director of Walhi, the country's leading environmental watchdog, said the grabs have become "a major problem found in almost all forested areas in Indonesia".

In the densely-populated province of Lampung at the south end of Indonesia's Sumatra island, illegal encroachment has reached critical levels, said Sutono, the deputy chief of the Lampung forestry office.

"In Lampung, this encroachment has been going on for a long time, even back 30 to 40 years," he said, adding there were now even registered official villages inside what should have been protected natural forest areas.

He estimates about 65 percent of a million hectares of protected forest area in Lampung has been grabbed and converted to settlements and farmland.

"The root cause of this illegal occupation is the absence of work opportunities, and most of the people involved in this usually are willing to leave the forest if they can get jobs or livelihoods elsewhere," Sutono said.

Ownership disputes have also led to an explosion of court cases in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami displaced thousands of villagers from the Andaman coast.

Many either had no documents to prove they owned the land, or lost their property deeds in the waves.

Some 387 court cases have been filed by companies against villagers since the tsunami, with more than 200 still before the courts.

Another 800 eviction notices are in mediation, according to Suttipong Lyetip of the National Human Rights Commission.

Most of the cases that have been settled were resolved through compromise, often with the companies paying out some compensation.

But that is an unlikely outcome elsewhere.

Worsening violence has come to characterise the growing number of disputes that erupt in China, where at least half of all land deals are thought to be illegal and the victims get nothing from the transaction.

"The crux of the issue is that governments at all levels plunder the land resources, the commoners see little if any of the money," said Hou Guoyan, a retired professor from the China University of Political Science and Law.

"Violators get off scot-free and the (central) government is at a loss to solve the problem."

Beijing has issued a series of regulations aimed at increasing scrutiny over land deals, experts say, but has little power to enforce the law in the provinces.

"The main problem is that standard compensation levels for villagers are too low," said Liu Xiaoying, a rural issues researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences. "This is very difficult to solve."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Natural Disasters Hit Chinese Grain Output
Beijing (AFP) July 23, 2007
Floods and other natural disasters are hurting China's grain output, the government said Monday, raising the prospect of higher food prices with inflation already at uncomfortably high levels. "Agricultural production is facing various problems, including flooding, drought, typhoon, plant diseases and insect pests," the agriculture ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

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