An irrigation project in Battambang Province funded by the Asian Development Bank has stirred anger among more than 200 families who say they face losing up to 500 hectares of farmland, villagers and officials said Friday.
During a public forum organized by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Kakoh Commune’s Chak Touch village in Mong Russei district, villagers accused commune and district authorities of repeatedly intimidating local residents, telling them not to protest against the ADB-funded project, believed to be worth about $2 million.
“Villagers always support and enjoy the government’s development projects,” said Han Mao, a village resident who attended the forum. “But the project should help poor people, not cause them to move off their farmland and jeopardize their livelihoods,” he said.
Present at the forum, Soum Viratha, a technical consultant for ADB, promised that the affected families would receive compensation or be given a new plot of land.
Despite the assurance from the ADB representative, Han Mao said that neither the commune chief nor the district governor had ever spoken about such possibilities.
“Instead, they have proceeded to threaten and accuse the villagers of farming on the government’s land,” he said by telephone.
Contacted by phone Friday, Deputy District Governor Nou Sithoeun confirmed the project aimed to restore a canal built during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. He added that work was due to start by late 2010.
“We need to develop the area and renovate the canal as it will act as an important water reservoir for thousands of hectares of rice paddies,” he said.
The canal, which stretches for 4 km between Kakoh and Prey Touch communes, collapsed in 1980. Afterwards, local residents moved into the area to start growing rice.
“Local authorities have never threatened the villagers,” said Pal Choam, Kakoh’s commune chief.
“Basically, the area belongs to the state. If locals are taking the state’s property, how can they be compensated?” he asked.
Kim Chantha, a spokesperson for ADB, said the Bank was pressing ahead with 11 irrigation subprojects under a $20 million scheme known as the Norwest Irrigation Project in five provinces: Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kompong Thom.
“Whenever projects have a social impact, ADB has a policy that requires the government to make a resettlement plan,” he said.
“Then [ADB] officials will look into the resettlement plan to ensure it complies with ADB policy or not,” he added.