The Gap Between

On a walk through my neighborhood in Phnom Penh, I get a taste of the spectrum of wealth and poverty that’s here in Cambodia. Going by these crazy houses with their 3 story greek-esk columns, I marvel that I’ve never seen this decadence even in Canberra. It’s even more so as in my ‘hood here, for Just around the corner, the homeless vendors can be seen shutting down their makeshift shacks at night to shelter up against the side of these street. The amazing contrast is, these villagers come to Phnom Penh with only their cart full of coconuts. they don’t return home till they sell all of them, and they will sleep in the streets until they do. I bought 2 coconuts or $3, rather than at some foreign owned grocery. This meager money I spent goes a long way with him. For most of my time so far, I’ve been surprisingly impartial in the face of the poverty I’ve seeing here. But something about the direct contact I had with this person jolted me a bit. I’ve vowed to shop from more street vendors during my time here instead of at the conglomerate supermarkets.

The Government came out last week saying that the number of people living on the streets of Phnom Penh dropped sharply in 2009, according to a government report released Tuesday, though NGOs that provide services to the homeless said the figures appeared to be a low estimate. The report, prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, cites a 44-percent decrease in the number of homeless people in the capital – from 4,189 to 2,337

Thats hard to take from a Government that actively makes people homeless. an Example of this is the Boeung Kak Lake saga. Well soon there will be no lake. The area was sold for $79 million a year ago and the lake is being filled in to make way for shops and high-end apartments. During my month-long stay in Phnom Penh I watched a sandbar grow from the south side Boeung Kak into the center of the lake. All day a pipeline pumped sand from the Tonle Sap River on the other side of town and sent water back out the other way. Bulldozers and tractors rumbled around on the new finger of land pushing sand from one spot to another.

The story begins here in Boeung Kak Lake in the heart of the capital, Phnom Penh. Two years ago, a little-known developer signed a 99-year lease with the council for this 133-hectare site. And they’re filling 90% of the lake with sand to build a high-rise. The problem for people living around the edge of the lake is, as the sand goes in the water level rises and their houses go under. These include 4000 families who live around the lake. Since the beginning, there’s been a total lack of transparency about the deal.

Boeung Kak has for years been a hangout for backpackers in Phnom Penh. The area, which is commonly called Lakeside and is located behind the relatively upscale Phnom Penh Hotel, is a collection of skinny alleyways lined by bars, guesthouses, travel agencies and Internet cafes. Many of Lakeside’s longtime residents have been displaced by the development; many made homeless. Those with land titles are supposed to be compensated $8,000 by the government, hardly a fraction of what their buildings and businesses are worth. But no money has been paid out yet. It would not surprise anyone if the government never paid; after all, there is precedent.

Since the plans for the lake were made public a couple of years ago, residents have complained, protests have been held and NGOs have advocated on behalf of the soon to be evicted. But still the pipeline gushes sand and the finger of land continues to grow.
Complicating the issue further, many Boeung Kak lake residents don’t possess legal titles to the land they occupy, but they say the government acknowledged their de facto ownership when it issued a book of family records. Authorities counter that the land was illegally occupied and that the family records were simply published to document the number of families living in the area.

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