Phon Sopheap stood outside the brick-and-wood house that her husband built. Behind her, the house teemed with young children. A shrine sat just inside the fence surrounding their plot of land.
Her family didn’t own the property on which their house has stood in Trapeang Raing Thmei village until Tuesday morning.
Phon Sopheap, 48, was among 228 squatters-turned-landowners living in a village within Khmuonh commune, Russei Keo district, who received official land deeds from Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema.
Two years ago this village didn’t exist.
Part of this rough patch of land was once a Russian agricultural research center, the other farmland. Most of the villagers once lived along the Kob Srov dike on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh, but were forced to relocate because the dike was being expanded.
Phon Sopheap said now that she owns her land, she doesn’t expect to be forced from her home ever again. “Nobody can take it back, nobody can confiscate our land. Before, the government could tell us to move because we didn’t own the land.
“I haven’t paid one cent for this land. I’m so happy because it proves our ownership,” she said.
As workers cleared away chairs and dismantled the tent where the municipal officials handed out the land titles to the villagers, 59-year-old Neang Chanpheng squatted inside a food stall dishing out sweet rice cakes.
She moved to this village about two years ago when it was first being settled. Now, about 270 families live in the village—and most of them became landowners on Tuesday.
The titles were a gift that has allowed her family to have a more secure life, she said while she examined the title decorated with government signatures. The piece of paper givers her official rights to a 7-meter by 15-meter plot of land.
“I’m happy with it because I didn’t have a certificate like this when I lived next to the dike,” said Sy Seng, a motorcycle taxi driver like many others living in the village.
This area on the edge of Phnom Penh is spotted with villages of relocated squatters. In nearby Sen Sok village many are awaiting their official land titles from the government.
Rom Sok San, 37, sat next to three sacks of rice inside his concrete-and-wood house, which doubles as a family-run store. “I haven’t received an official land title, but I think I will receive it after the officials finish with Trapeang Raing Thmei,” he said. “I hope I’ll get it quite soon.”
He was relocated to the village after fire destroyed his home in Tonle Bassac commune, Chamkar Mon district, in November 2002. Many of his neighbors, who earn their livings as motorcycle taxi drivers and construction workers, have sold their government-issued land and returned to the city.
“They cannot live without a job and food,” Rom Sok San said.
But other villagers are less hopeful about receiving official rights to the land on which they currently live.
Motorcycle repairman Bou Ham, 43, spent his lunch break underneath a tattered blue tarpaulin that hangs from his house.
“There is no hope to obtain a plot of land from the government,” he said.
Although he lived in the Tonle Bassac commune for years and relocated to Sen Sok with thousands of other displaced villagers, he didn’t have the right documentation to prove he qualified for a plot of land, he said.
“I cannot get the land to build a small house for my children,” he said.
He pays $10 a month to rent the small hut where he lives and works. It sits next to a garbage pile, across a red dirt road from a gas station. He earns about 5,000 riel per day. It’s not enough to pay his rent, he said.
If he were living back is Phnom Penh, he would be much better off, he said. In the capital, you can make a living repairing motorcycles on the sidewalk next to your house. “Here there are not many people except during the early morning or in the afternoon.”