Faulty Foundations

Prachea Thorm village, Poipet commune, Banteay Meanchey province – It’s a two hour walk to the Thai border from this rural village—too much for a woman six months pregnant—so In Chan Thorn sells her banana leaf-wrapped cakes to fellow villagers.

The $1.25 to $1.50 she earns each day barely covers living expenses, but has been enough to keep her six children fed since tuberculosis forced her husband out of his construction job last year, she said.

Despite the family’s precarious financial position, In Chan Thorn said she is waiting for the one thing that she is certain will give her security—the title to her 15 by 20 meter plot of land, where she has lived since being resettled five years ago with nearly 2,000 other families.

“I will not sell my land,” she said. “I’m scared my children will have no land to live on, so I have to keep it for my children.”

The land that In Chan Thorn and several thousand of her fellow villagers are trying to hold onto is part of a massive rural village that residents describe as rife with disease, crime and drug use.

Norwegian People’s Aid, the NGO that established the settlement in response to a cholera outbreak in a Poipet slum, pulled financial support from the project at the end of last year. Before withdrawing from the village completely, the NGO is working to finalize a long process to determine which of the several thousand people who currently occupy the site have a legitimate right to a title.

In the meantime, for many of the villagers who left their provincial homes to seek prosperity in Poipet, Prachea Thorm has become uncomfortably like the poor rural villages they left behind.

Diarrhea, skin disease, typhoid and dengue fever are a few of the public health problems facing the village. The level of HIV infections is also on the rise, said Kong Samnang, executive director of the NGO Social, Environment, Agriculture Development Organization, which provides care to HIV/AIDS patients in their homes. The organization takes on two to five new cases in the village
each month, he said.

Also, “in Prachea Thorm, what we have observed and experienced is that many people are using drugs,” Kong Samnang said. Between 30 percent and 50 percent of the young adult males in the village are regular yama, or methamphetamine, users, he said, mostly single laborers from the provinces who are staying with relatives in the village.

It was poor health conditions in the slums that inspired the village’s creation. In 1998, Banteay Meanchey provincial authorities called an emergency meeting of NGOs operating in the area to address a cholera epidemic killing more than 40 people each week in the slums near the old railway station. NPA was among those present. The NGO had experience in resettling refugees and agreed to move families from the affected slums onto a 114-hectare plot of land donated by O’Chrou district.

Speaking in his office in Serei Sisophon town earlier this month, NPA program manager Felipe Atkins acknowledged that the organization had not planned on long-term management of the site when it began the resettlement project.

“When the cholera broke out, we just reacted,” he said. “We didn’t really see how complex the issue would become.”

The village was divided into 10 sections of 20 plots, each headed by a locally elected section chief. Selected families signed a contract with NPA, in which they agreed to help clear the land, abide by conduct rules and pay 50 bhat, or $1.25, each month for three years to a community fund used to maintain the village’s public land.

“When they first arrived, no one wanted to live here,” said Suon Sakhen, 47, chief of section 4. The resettled villagers found themselves in a forest with no decent roads to Poipet town, where most worked as laborers.

The village had “very poor sanitation, bad water, bad roads that flooded,” said Ou Dara, health education and water sanitation manager for ZOA Refugee Care. The NGO worked alongside NPA to start regular health education programs in the village, training peer educators to spread information from the village’s health center throughout the 10 sections.

NPA drilled 54 wells and built a primary school, a health center, a pagoda, and a 12-km arterial road with smaller routes traversing the village. It also provided enough building materials for each family to build a 4 by 5 meter square house on their plot, complete with a latrine and water jar.

Today, firewood has become too expensive and villagers have stopped boiling water for cooking and drinking, resident Tesh Sarin, 40, said last month. A group of children gathered around him as he spoke, including one girl with a hacking cough that threatened to drown out Tesh Sarin’s words.

Prachea Thorm is a safer and cleaner place than the slums he left behind, Suon Sakhen said.

Others disagreed.

“It is not a safe place. There are many robbers. If I was careless a second, I would lose everything,” Tesh Sarin said.

As the years went on, and the lucrative employment that drew many of the villagers to Poipet grew more elusive, fewer and fewer were able to pay their $1.25 share of the communal pot when section chiefs made their rounds to collect the money.

It also became increasingly difficult to know who to collect money from.

Breadwinners died or disappeared, Atkins of NPA said. Desperately poor villagers abandoned their land or pawned their temporary titles, and people from the provinces came to squat on relatives’ plots or settle haphazardly next to the village.

Today, only about 50 percent to 60 percent of villagers make monthly payments, Atkins said.

“These are lessons learned the hard way,” Atkins said.

Meeting the $1.25 monthly payment—which comes to a $45 contribution at the end of three years —is a condition for earning a permanent land title. Families also had to agree not to sell or leave their land. After tabulating all those who have paid their contribution and remained on their land, NPA is working to obtain titles for 1,407 of the original families resettled into Prachea Thorm.

In Chan Thorn said she paid 21 of the 36 months before her money ran out. Tesh Sarin, who carries goods on his back to vendors at the market on the Thai side of the border, said he stopped making payments after a year and a half.

Families who had lived up to their contract but were behind in payments would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Atkins said. Since NPA’s withdrawal from the project, the right for untitled villagers to remain on the land is up to district authorities to decide, he said.

District authorities said last month that they still saw promise in Prachea Thorm village.

“I feel proud of Prachea Thorm, because its infrastructure is much better than other villages in the district,” O’Chrou district governor Sar Chamrong said. “I believe that if people paid much more attention to protecting the village’s environment, grow more plants, and especially prevent drug use, it would become the best village in this district.”

Those who live there are less optimistic.

Bun Srey Roth, 34, said she sold her land to another villager when her husband died last year, and is now squatting on a neighbor’s plot with her three children.

“I don’t know where I should live if they [evict] me from that land,” she said.

As she spoke, a villager handed her her squalling 14-month-old son. She lifted her shirt to breastfeed, and the infant was soon asleep in her arms.

As she held her sleeping child, Bun Srey Roth offered a warning to those who might come to Poipet.

“I don’t know how to say, but I want to appeal to people: Do not come here. It is not a good place for a job,” she said. “But I don’t think jobless people will listen to me.”

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