How many times, in how many countries, in how many cities, have we heard this story? Governments try to force poor people off land they’ve lived on for years, sometimes decades, so that it can be developed and put to “better use”. Who cares if they’re shoving people into slums with no running water or sewage system? Who cares if moving them will not only adversely affect their health but also their livelihood? After all, it’s the government’s responsibility to “clean up the trash” to make way for progress, right?
Tell that to the nearly 150 families in Phnom Penh, Cambodia who city authorities have threatened with forced eviction from land known as Group 78 since June 2006. Most are poor street vendors; some are teachers or low-level civil servants. The area they would be moved to has no water supply or sewage systems, and the cost of transportation from there to city far exceeds the expected daily earnings of most street vendors and junior civil servants.
The families have applied for formal title to their land several times. They have official documentation proving that they have lived on the site for long enough to claim title, but the authorities have rejected all their applications. The community has even engaged architecture students to produce plans to develop the site while they are still resident in order to show that eviction is not essential for development.
Cambodia is certainly not the only country with housing rights issues, and the more you read, the more overwhelmed you can feel. How can we ever put a stop to it all? Well, you have to start somewhere, so I plan to write a letter for the residents of Group 78 in this year’s Write-a-thon.