Disputes over land acquisition for New Phnom Penh Airport date back to 2018 when 2,600 hectares, in the Kandal Province, were allocated for the project. With an estimated cost of US$1.5 billion the development was described as one of the world’s largest airports by land area with an adjoining ‘Airport City’. The site is predominantly agricultural land and villagers were shocked by sudden news of the airport and the prospect of losing homes, land and livelihoods from farming and fishing. A series of protests between February and June 2018 involved hundreds of people, representing about 2,000 families, complaining of low compensation offers, intimidation during negotiations over land and encroachment onto communally held wetlands. By December 2019 foundations for the airport were being laid.
Protest continued into 2020. In June the Kandal Stung district governor said 2,000 plots of land were affected by airport construction and in August villagers from the Kandal and Takeo provinces whose farmland fell within the planned site petitioned the Prime Minister requesting a bigger payout from the airport developer. By May 2021 construction of New Phnom Penh Airport was reported to be 40% complete, with the terminal hall, airfield and 100 metre high control tower already in place. A State Secretariat of Aviation (SSCA) spokesperson said, “We are aware that the pandemic has disrupted many projects and the economy, but the construction of the airport in Kandal Province and other airport projects in the country have been on schedule.” The map below, dated 17th July 2021, shows satellite imagery of part of the airport site and communes impacted by land acquisition including Ampov Prey, Boeng Khyang and Kandork.
The land dispute escalated on 14th May 2021 when approximately 200 people who said their rice crops had been destroyed set up a protest camp blocking a road to the construction site. They set up tents and a few days later several of them surrounded a bulldozer and demanded proper compensation for their land and crops. Residents were still blocking bulldozers from clearing farmland in July and authorities warned journalists against covering the land dispute. On 7th September about 50 villagers attempted to block National Road 2 in protest against development of New Phnom Penh Airport. They were confronted by about 100 security officers but the standoff remained non-violent. Then police set up roadblocks to prevent villagers from inspecting land they had been displaced from. A representative of Kampong Talong village (shown to the south of the map) said villagers were being prevented from seeing land that had been seized for airport construction. They had ceased cultivating the land three years ago but economic hardship, due to business shutdowns during the Covid pandemic, had driven them to start farming it again as they had been left without other ways to survive.
On 12th September 2021 a ‘clash’ between about 100 protesters and about 400 police left 13 officers and an unknown number of protesters injured. Kandal provincial police dispersed the protests with teargas and about 30 people were arrested and detained. Nine of the arrested people were accused of violence – specifically being in possession of sticks stones and slingshots, hurling gasoline and burning tyres. In February 2022 a dozen excavators were digging up rice fields and wetland in Boeng Khyang and dozens of police and military officials were dispatched to ensure implementation of authorities’ instructions to carry out the works. The nine protesters charged with violence were acquitted in November 2022. At this time the number of villagers impacted by land acquisition increased; about 200 people demanded to know whether they would be joining the 300 families already being displaced for the airport. Numbers were sprayed in red paint on dozens of houses alongside the 94 canal, located about 5km from the airport site. Then in January 2023 residents affected by the airport development said company workers had instructed them to dismantle sheds housing animals, causing anxiety that their land might be cleared. Representatives of 460 families living around the airport project had requested land titles the previous month but received no response.
Plans for airport city style development at Nadzab Airport – located 42km to the northwest of Lae, capital of the Morobe Province and Papua New Guinea’s second largest city – emerged in a 2011 masterplan for future growth of the airport both as an aeronautical hub and as a commercial and industrial centre. Nadzab Airport’s extensive land holding was earmarked for development and expansion over a time-frame of 50-70 years. The graphic below, showing a business hub next to the airport, is from Nadzab Central Strategic Plan, produced by Planpac and identifying development opportunities for 700 hectares of greenfield land.
Tensions between clans over ownership of land parcels date back to the inception of the airport project, in 1972 when the country was under Australian colonial administration. A loan agreement between the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the PNG government – for ¥26,942 million (USD225.2 million) of an estimated project cost of ¥32,246 million (USD269.6 million) – was signed on 14th October 2015 and the project came to be known as Nadzab Airport Redevelopment Plan (NARP). Plans for an Airport City were mentioned in 2017 and in February 2020 NARP project manager said it was a major airport and city development and the provincial government must help address landowner issues. Prime Minister James Marape tasked Lands and Planning Minister John Rosso to start mobilising landowners in preparation for the project. In April 2021 PNG National Airports Corporation (NAC) managing director and chief executive Rex Kiponge said that upon completion of NARP the airport city concept would be rolled out, saying “When the airport is complete, the commercial aspects of the airport business hub must complement it.”
The village of Gabsongkeg is at the centre of NARP and landowners have made repeated calls for consultation, participation in the project and spin-off business opportunities. In 2020 landowners were disappointed that construction and security contracts were awarded to outsiders overlooking reputable local businesses. In January 2022 it was reported that only a small number of landowners were benefitting from leasing their customary land for associated businesses. Local people impacted by airport development still lack clean running water, electricity and adequate health facilities. NARP and other projects, such as a 4-lane highway and gold and copper mining, have triggered an influx of people, disrupting the social fabric and leading to increased social problems including violence, killings and drug & alcohol abuse. The area lacks a police station to address these issues.
Serious social problems of rape, underage marriage and prostitution specifically harm women. And women have been marginalized in land-related negotiations and decisions due to government assumptions of patrilineal land descent. Yet in the midst of these difficulties 60 Gabsongkeg women – planning ahead as most of the land in Gabsongkeg where coconut, plantain, cocoa and other trees are cultivated, is set to be taken over by the Nadzab township development – have established table markets selling food and other goods. They have increased their incomes and aim to grow their ventures into small-medium sized enterprises to support their families in the future.
In 2003 construction of an international airport in Sikhuphe, Swaziland was initiated by King Mswati III, who rules the country as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. From its inception commentators warned that the new airport was a waste of resources, diverting funding away from vital projects to fight poverty in Swaziland. In contrast with the one in seven of the coutnry’s inhabitants living in abject poverty King Mswati III enjoyed a lavish lifestyle with 13 palaces, fleets of luxury cars and a private jet.
In March 2014, presiding over an expensive opening ceremony, King Mswati III unveiled the name of the new airport: King Mswati III International Airport. In the lead up to this event he had announced that a new town would be established to support the new airport, which would bring development to the surrounding communities, including Mbadlane, Hlane and Malindza. He proclaimed “After a radius of about five kilometres from the airport, urban structures will be constructed.” More than three years later, in October 2017, the Times of Swaziland reported that King Mswati III International Airport had ‘brought nothing but misery to hundreds of residents of Sikhuphe, in Malindza, where the airfield was constructed’. They had not received any compensation for their relocation, despite a consultant’s recommendation that a sum of approximately US$6 million be allocated for resettlement of 188 homesteads falling within the boundary of the so-called ‘airport city’.
There was a series of protests over impacts of airport and road construction and lack of compensation in 2021. In September, Malindza residents protested disruption of their water supply caused by construction of a road serving the airport, and demanded its restoration. They had been left struggling to access water to sustain their cultivation of vegetables and rearing of livestock after a dam was destroyed by Inyatsi, a firm with close connections to the government which was awarded construction contracts for King Mswati III International Airport along with a major highway connecting South Africa to Mozambique via the airport. In November a group of about 200 residents blocked Inyatsi’s trucks from entering the quarry near King Mswati III International Airport. It was their third protest in three months. In November 2021 some of the residents of Malindza who were displaced to make way for the project and whose houses were damaged by blasting works during construction – of the airport and road leading to it – were still demanding compensation. Blasting had caused cracks in their houses. A group of residents, mainly women, protested for almost a week and camped in the bushes. They had lost patience after struggling for compensation for almost 20 years.
A proposed aerotropolis in Malaysia, KXP AirportCity, is one of a number of strategic infrastructure projects under the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) Strategic Development Plan 2021-2025. The project, also referred to as Kedah Aerotropolis, comprises a new airport, Kulim International Airport and Sidam Logistics, Aerospace and Manufacturing Hub (SLAM). The Kedah Aerotropolis page on the NCER website describes an aerotropolis as ‘a metropolitan subregion whose infrastructure, land use and economy are centred on an airport’. It states that the proposed development would take up 9,841 acres (3,983 hectares) of land and that ‘KXP has readily available land that can cater for its expansion for the next 20 to 50 years’. Images in the sildeshow below show: a map of the proposed KXP AirportCity site with associated road development including a new expressway interchange, an aerial image with a digitised boundary of the proposed site, predominantly consisting of farmland, and a Kedah Aerotropolis infographic.
The Kedah state government appointed KXP AirportCity Holdings (KAHSB) to manage and coordinate construction of Kulim Airport. In February 2020, after witnessed a signing ceremony between the CEO of KAHSB and Aeroport de Paris Ingenierie (ADPI), the firm appointed to draw up a development master plan for KXP, Kedah Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) Mukhriz Mahathir invited airport investors, operators and concession holders to invest in the project. He said “The risks of uncertainties regarding land acquisition have been settled” and announced that 3,982 hectares of land had been gazetted to KXP and the Federal Government had approved a “large loan facility” for Kedah to acquire the land, currently belonging to private owners.
But land acquisition for KXP AirportCity met with a protest by villagers concerned they would lose their land and livelihoods. Many Pantai Cicar villagers were concerned that land they had lived on for almost a century could be lost as it was within the area earmarked for construction of the airport city project. On 28th February 2020 about 300 residents of Pantai Cicar village gathered in front of the mosque to protest against land acquisition for the proposed KXP project. The chairman of a village action committee said the earmarked land included more than 200 houses, the mosque that had been built by the community and the cemetary where their ancestors were buried. Implementation of the airport project would impact upon residents whose main livelihoods are from rubber tapping, working on palm plantations and self-employment.
A video of the 28th February protest against taking Pantai Cicar village land for KXP AirportCity shows a large gathering of people. Some of the banners at the protest are written in English and read:
OUR LAND FOR NEXT GENERATION AND NOT FOR NEW AIRPORT, WHY NEED TO CONSTRUCT NEW AIRPORT AT TRADITIONAL VILLAGES
DON’T TAKE OUR BELOVED VILLAGE, AVOID THE KXP, FROM OUR VILLAGE, MOVE THE KXP TO THE PKNK OWN PROPERTY
DON’T DISTURB OUR COMMUNITY WITH NEW AIRPORT PROJECT
OUR LAND FOR NEXT GENERATION AND NOT FOR NEW KXP CITY & AIRPORT
WE LOVE STAY UNITY. PLEASE DON’T DEVIDE US WITH SPLIT SETTLEMENT, WE DO NOT NEED NEW AIRPORT AT THIS MOMENT
WE LOVE STAY UNITY. PLEASE DON’T DEVIDE US WITH SPLIT SETTLEMENT, DEALING WITH BIAS NOT OUR CULTURE!
At the time of the protest preparations were underway to hand over a memorandum containing almost 1,000 residents’ signatures to the state government. In addition to Pantai Cicar several nearby villages were also listed in the proposed land acquisition: Kuala Sedim, Jerung, Kemumbong, Lubuk Kiab, Batu Pekaka and Tanah Licin. The local government and housing committee chairman said the Kedah state government would investigate and review the project’s impact on the environment, saying planning was just beginning and there would be a discussion session.
Since a Kulim airport project was being considered in 2014 there has been an emphasis on potential air cargo operations. In December 2014 Mukhriz said the Kedah state government planned to construct an ‘aerocity’ at the proposed Kulim Airport; an industrial and business area, located on what was at that juncture specified as a 600 hectare airport precinct, would “accommodate all industries related to air transportation”. In March 2015 Mukhriz said Kulim Airport would initially operate as a cargo facility. In November 2020 KXP was described as ‘an airport city that will be an integral part of the Kedah Aerotropolis economic region driven by intermodal connectivity focussing on cargo, logistics and industrial development’. It is envisaged that Kulim Airport’s cargo facilities and the development of the aerotropolis will be complemented by the Sidam Logistics, Aerospace and Manufacturing Hub (SLAM).
A large area of farmland was cleared for an airport city/cargo airport in Anambra, southern Nigeria and neighbouring communities complain of expansion of the project site and land grabbing. Two satellite images of the site show major changes over a four year period. The image on the left shows the airport site in January 2016, before announcement of the project, containing many plots of farmland. On the right, an image dated February 2020 shows a large expanse of farmland has been cleared for Anambra Airport City runway and other facilities.
The Anambra Airport City project, also also referred to as Umueri Airport City and Anambra Cargo Airport, was launched in April 2017. A two-runway airport with an airport hotel, business park, international convention centre along with aviation fuel and aircraft maintenance facilities, costing more than USD2.2 billion was announced by the governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano. Two years later a large expanse of land had been cleared but little work had been done on the site. Igbo Renaissance Council stated that the employment for local people that was promised had not materialized and residents whose homes had been razed to make way for the project had been left ‘dejected and depressed with no sign of hope on the horizon’.
In July 2020 – in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, with airports that had been closed since March only slowly recommencing operations – residents of several communities around the Anmbra Airport site complained that government agents responsible for executing the project were encroaching beyond the boundary of the land area that had been allocated. People of Umuopo, Umuinu and Enuagu kindreds in Umueri, north of the airport site, stated that they were being dispossessed of their remaining portions of land and had been “thrown into pains and agony“. They said the government was deliberately making them refugees on their own land. Community investigation revealed that unscupulous individuals were annexing their land and they called on the state government for help, stating:
“By extending their hand into other portions of our land, what does the government expect us to survive with as we are just farmers? We have written, we have cried, we have pleaded and we have engaged in all forms of diplomacy to demand that government restricts itself to the agreed portion of land, all to no avail.”
It was also reported that residents of Ifite Nteje, a community to the south of the Anambra airport project, were suffering from violence meted out by youths who had seized communal land. A band of youths had ‘unleashed mayhem on the community, sacking villagers from their homes’. People opposing sale of their communal land had been beaten with many being injured and homes had been burned down. Members of the community said the crisis had ‘brought hunger and famine as they no longer have land for farming’ and ‘they dared no go to their farms anymore for fear of being maimed, while the women among them were raped’. One woman, a widow, said their formerly peaceful community had been taken over by violence and she was one of many women who no longer had land to farm that they needed to feed their families.
On 14th October 2020 it was reported that youths from the Umueri community had dispersed bulldozers that had been had been stationed, without notice, to demolish farmland and privately owned agro-investments. A farm owner maintained his affected farm was not within the airport area and appealed for intervention from the state government to halt trespassing. On 19th October residents of Umuopo, Enuagu and Umuinu protested against alleged encroachment on their land, lighting a bonfire and blocking the road to the airport site. Some of the placards read: “We can’t be refugees and IDPs in our own land”; “We’re farmers why collect our land to build housing estate”; “Anambra State government go to the portion of land given for the airport.” The protestors described the government’s action as a deliberate attempt to impoverish the people, who were predominantly farmers. The Chairman of Ifite Umueri Community claimed that they had given the government 729.60 hectares for the airport project, but over 1,901 hectares had been taken.
Obiano, Anambra State governor, continues to support the Anambra Airport project, saying it will have the second longest runway in Nigeria after Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. Then on 4th November the Anambra State Government set aside Naira 5.8 billion (USD15.2 million) for completion of the Anambra Airport project during the presentation of the 2021 Appropriation Bill.
Information about Anambra Airport City/Cargo Airport and its impact on neighbouring communities is a new addition to a cluster of similar airport projects in southern Nigeria, all of which are documented and analyzed in the Map of Airport-Related Injustice and Resistance, a partnership project coordinated by EnvJustice and the Stay Grounded Network. Land has been cleared to make way for proposed cargo airports in Ekiti, Ogun, Obudu and Ebonyi. In all four cases bulldozers arrived without warning and began destroying people’s farmland and crops to make way for airport construction.
In the case of the proposed Ekiti airport bulldozers ripped down trees and cleared farmland before even consulting affected farm owners from five villages. Farmers succeeded in stalling the project and secured a major court victory with all their claims against the state government being vindicated. Hundreds of farmers protested against land-grabbing for a cargo airport in Ogun State. In 2018 it was reported that 5,000 farmers were affected by the project and some had been intimidated and their crops bulldozed. Earth moving equipment began destroying farmland and felling trees in three Obudu villages where land has been earmarked for an airport, flouting project planning and land procedures. Allocation of a large land area for a proposed cargo airport in Ebonyi cargo triggered protests by people facing displacement from their ancestral homes and farmland. Bulldozers began clearing land and destroying crops and landowners raised alarm over imminent hunger in their community.
A global map of socio-environmental conflicts and justice movements related to aviation-related projects includes 60 cases that have already been analyzed. The map provides a wealth of information on how people and the environment can be negatively impacted by new airports and expansion of existing airports. Affected communities contend with a multitude of injustices: eviction, land dispossession, loss of farmland and fishing grounds, destruction of ecosystems, construction work impacts and health damage from aircraft pollution and noise once airport projects become operational. More than 300 such cases around the world have been registered in the research project, conducted by the EnvJustice project and the Stay Grounded network.
Several aerotropolis or airport city projects, i.e. substantial commercial and/or industrial development constructed or planned on land surrounding or adjoining an airport, are documented and analyzed. Examples include Kertajati Airport and New Yogyakarta International Airport in Indonesia, both of which involved forcible eviction of communities from several villages from their homes and farmlands. In Cambodia, the government has approved a plan for a new Phnom Penh Airport, one of the world’s largest airports by land area, along with an associated ‘airport city’. The proposed site, predominantly agricultural land, encompasses land that Kandal Stueng villages have resided on for two decades, including communally held wetlands. About 2,000 families could be affected and hundreds of people have protested against the development.
In India, Andal Aerotropolis is a private airport city development that was stalled by sharecroppers protesting delays in receiving compensation for land taken for the project. Landowners from seven villages in Purandar sustained resistance against loss of their homes and farmland for a new airport since the location of the project was announced in 2016. Then in 2018 it was reported that the state government was forming a consortium to drive investment in an ‘airport city’ around the airport. Villagers’ resistance against displacement from their farmland for Bhogapuram Aerotropolis, also referred to as an ‘aerocity’, succeeded in reducing the land area allocated to the project from 6,000 hectares to 1,122 hectares, along with securing higher compensation for a group of farmers.
A plan for a new airport on the Arial Beel wetlands in Bangladesh is an example of a aerotropolis-type megaproject that was halted by mass mobilisation. A vast swath of land had been earmarked for development, 10,117 hectares for the airport and an accompanying ‘satellite city’, and the farming and fishing livelihoods of thousands of people were set to be seriously affected with wetlands paved over. The government cancelled the project after major protests, the largest of which involved 30,000 people. In the Philippines, mangroves, coastal wetlands providing a vital habitat for many species and protection from erosion and flooding, have already been destroyed to make way for the proposed Bulacan Aerotopolis which threatens to destroy fishing livelihoods. Airport projects can entail deforestation. In Nepal, the proposed Nijgadh Airport, a massive 8,000 hectare aerotropolis, raises the prospect of over 2.4 million trees being felled.
A number of airport projects shown on the map are key components of tourism development schemes that are based upon aviation dependency. A proposed new airport on the Island of Fainu, in The Maldives, is accompanied by a plan for an adjoining hotel. The project would destroy a long stretch of white sand coastline, dense forest and agricultural land, the airport and hotel projects combined swallowing up much of the small island. Another example is the Philippine island of Sicogon where, in the aftermath of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, developers seized upon the opportunity for tourism development, the first phase of which includes an airport specifically for tourism along with beachfront accommodation. Disaster capitalism is also evident in the Caribbean island of Barbuda where land clearance for construction of a new airport, intended to support tourism growth in particular high-end resorts, began shortly after residents were evacuated following Hurricane Irma.
The map includes two major airports built to support fossil fuel projects. Uganda’s second international airport, Hoima Airport, currently under construction, is a key component of the 29 square kilometre Kabaale Petrochemical Industrial Park. With a 3.5 kilometre length runway, capable of accommodating the world’s largest cargo aircraft, it is envisaged that in its first phase of operations Hoima Airport will handle delivery of heavy equipment for the oil refinery on the site. In a similar vein, Komo Airfield, in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, has the country’s longest runway and was built for delivery of heavyweight and outsize equipment for the ExxonMobil led PNG LNG (liquefied natural gas) project.
A number of cases shown on the map involve allocation of larger areas of land than would be required for aviation operations, increasing the number of people potentially facing displacement due to land acquisition, but without clear information on what the excess land might be utilized for. For example, in Nigeria the Cross River State government intends to acquire 900 hectares of land for a proposed Obudu International Passenger and Cargo Airport and people have been evicted from their homes and farmlands. In a similar case in Nigeria, bulldozers arrived without warning to clear 4,000 hectares of farmland where crops including cocoa, palm trees and bananas were cultivated for a cargo airport in Ekiti. This airport project is one instance of a successful court case where affected people secured a court victory that halted the airport project. Also in Nigeria, about 5,000 people from 20 villages could be affected by a proposed Ogun cargo airport and hundreds of farmers protested against land-grabbing.
The map of aviation-related conflicts and environmental justice movements is an ongoing project in development coordinated by the EnvJustice (ICTA-UAB) project and the Stay Grounded network. In addition to the 60 airport-related cases already included, a great many further cases have been registered as meriting further investigation. A total of 300 cases have been registered. The information gathered for the global map has been provided by a wide variety of organizations, local collectives and academics. The research team is coordinated by Rose Bridger (Stay Grounded) and Sara Mingorria (ICTA-UAB). This already substantial database and interactive map related to airports is part of Ejatlas, the biggest global inventory of socio-environmental conflicts around the world. As of 11th July 2019 2,831 cases were registered on Ejatlas and this is anticipated to increase to 3,000 cases by the end of the year.
A plan for a new airport, one of the largest in the world on a 2,600 hectare site in the Kandal District of Cambodia, with an accompanying ‘Airport City’, has reignited one of the country’s fiercest land disputes.
In January the Cambodian government approved a plan for a new airport, one of the largest in the world by land area, on farmland in the Kandal Province, about 30 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Construction of the new airport is anticipated to commence in 2019 and a 21st December 2017 document from the Council of Ministers approved an investment proposal from Cambodia Airport Investment, a joint venture between the State Secretariat of Aviation (SSCA) and Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC). OCIC is a private firm, one of the largest finance, infrastructure and real estate companies in Cambodia, owned by tycoon Pung Khiev Se, with a track record of financing major development projects.
The land area earmarked for the airport project, 2,600 hectares, is more than six times larger than the existing Phnom Penh Airport’s 400 hectares and considerably larger than Beijing Capital Airport, the world’s second busiest passenger airport, with a 1,480 hectare site and handling over 94 million passengers in 2016. Predominantly low-lying agricultural land, the proposed site is on the northwestern shore of a large lake, Boueng Cheung Loung. Preparing the lakeside area of the proposed site for airport construction would require land reclamation and it is thought that there is some overlap with the lake itself.
A map produced by GAAM shows the proposed airport site, based on a modified satellite image published in the Phnom Penh Post. The authors of the article were not certain whether the proposed airport site is state-owned or part of OCIC’s vast land bank. The rectangular area outlined in orange, measuring 1,000 hectares, appears to be allocated for the airport. The adjoining rectangular area, outlined in yellow, measuring approximately 1,800 hectares, appears to be earmarked for development of an ‘Airport City’, described by SSCA spokesman Sinn Chanserey Vutha as a mixed-use development including a commercial centre and residential housing. Chanserey Vutha explained that investors will not be able to generate a profit from the airport itself, so the land for the Airport City is being offered to investors for generating profits from commercial centres and other amenities.
Land rights protests as villagers fear eviction
Announcement of the new airport and associated development sent land prices soaring upwards and within days land for sale signs were hastily erected. Rice fields and lakeside properties in the area that had been valued at between US$20,000 – 50,000 per hectare before announcement of the new airport began selling for as much as US$100,000 or even US$200,000 per hectare. Kandal District villagers were shocked by sudden news of the airport project, along with publication of maps appearing to show the new airport and a massive multi-use development on land they have resided on and near for more than two decades. Their land ownership is disputed by a local ‘oknha’ or tycoon, Seang Chanheng, who has long laid claim to it. A government-aligned media outlet, Fresh News, released documents purporting to show that the land had belonged to Seang Chenheng all along, but even provincial authorities profess uncertainty regarding rights to the land. Regardless of this uncertainty, a large area of disputed land was recently purchased for the airport project, by OCIC in partnership with the SSCA.
Several communes in the Kandal Stung district are wracked by long-running land disputes; the airport project has raked up old tensions and new potential conflicts are looming. Already, there are indications that the authorities are siding with Chanheng’s company and criminalizing protest by villagers residing near the land earmarked for the new development. At the beginning of February over 100 villagers blocked bulldozers from digging a dam on disputed land adjacent to the proposed airport site. Subsequently, Kandal Military Police summoned six villagers to appear for questioning after Chanheng accused them of “incitement” and obstructing her machinery. Oeung Sary, one of the villagers called in for questioning, was undeterred by the order, saying “We will go to meet with the Military Police whether they arrest us or not, because we are fighting for our land…We have no guns or power to fight them with. If they want to jail us, let them jail us.”
On 19th February affected villagers staged a major protest. Over 200 people from four communes gathered at Kandal Provincial Hall to voice their complaints regarding land earmarked for the new airport and seek resolution of the dispute with Seang Chanheng. Oeung Sary remained defiant and determined to stay on the land. Refusing to appear before the military police she said “We will not go to answer. If they want to arrest us, let it be” and accused the government of “bias” in favour of Chanheng’s company. Another villager, Sorn An, said she was one of several villagers who had sold land, in her case belonging to her grandmother, to Chanheng’s company but been underpaid, selling it for $250 per hectare but receiving a fraction this amount, just $25 or $50. She said they had been intimidated during negotiation over the land, that representatives of the company had slammed the table in front of them, threatened them, locked the door and called the police.
Reigniting one of Cambodia’s fiercest land disputes
One of the fiercest and lengthiest land disputes in Cambodia has been reignited by the new airport project. Nearly 300 families living in three villages in the Kandal District, still bearing their Pol Pot era names of Point 92, Point 93 and Point 94, have resided in the area for more than twenty years. Before the residents settled upon it the land was uncultivated. Their ownership of it appears to be legitimate on the basis of a 2001 law that people living peacefully on uncontested land for five years can lay claim to it.
But in 2005 Chenheng’s men began bulldozing the land in order to claim ownership of it. The villagers achieved a rare legal victory in 2006-7 when the Kandal Provincial Court upheld their claim to the land. Some families were issued with temporary land titles, but the official land titles that they were assured of were not issued. Chanheng’s company began clearing the land again in 2009, bulldozing villagers’ farms and a much loved local temple. Company security guards and Military Police fired on villagers who came to protest, wounding three of them. Prime Minister Hun Sen did not respond to a protest outside his house. In 2010 ten villagers attempting to block bulldozers from destroying their ripening rice crops were arrested and charged with land grabbing and incitement in connection with the protests, a move decried as harassment by human rights organizations.
Suddenly, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the disputed land belongs to Min You Cultural Foundation, a company which appeared to be unregistered with no trace of it to be found in Ministry of Commerce records. The Court made this ruling even though it acknowledged “many irregularities” in the sale of the land to this company. Villagers had not heard of the company or the court case or the hearing and were not even called to testify at the hearing.
As land disputes erupt again in the wake of the planned new airport, with villagers fearing they will be stripped of their land and evicted, human rights groups argue that development on the land should cease until land disputes are resolved. Vann Sopathi, business and human rights coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that government and developers should conduct a social and environmental impact assessment of the airport project, and that it should not be permitted to proceed until a mutually acceptable solution is agreed between the company and the affected people.
Villagers are not the only people embroiled in land disputes relating to the new airport; several high-ranking officials own land in the Kandork commune which overlaps with the northernmost portion of the proposed site and a group of them complained of encroachment by an un-named Chinese company. Villagers were hired to guard their plots and one woman said she had climbed onto a bulldozer to prevent men digging her employer’s land.
Cambodia is beset with a multitude of land disputes due to ambiguities over, and haphazard implementation of, land rights laws. The dispute over the land that is now announced as the site for a new airport is a typical example of tensions between elites with legal claims and villagers who have lived on the land for long periods and whose informal claims are backed by local authorities. Such land disputes are usually settled in favour of people with power and money, as they have the necessary influence and social connections to produce the requisite documentation.
Airport project financing
The projected cost of the new airport is $1.5 billion. Of this sum, OCIC will invest US$280 million and US$120 million will come from public funds, but the bulk of the funding, $1.1 billion, will come from “foreign banks” that at the time of the announcement remained unspecified. But it is clear that at least a significant proportion of the foreign investment will be from China. OCIC signed a “co-operation framework agreement” for the new airport with the state-run China Development Bank. Chinese financing of the new airport is one of 19 agreements to develop Cambodia’s infrastructure, agriculture and health system, signed on 11th January during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang. The deals were signed by various representatives of the Cambodian and Chinese governments in a ceremony lasting less than 10 minutes. Officials did not ask any questions and few details were given about the agreements, even though they are likely to impact heavily on Cambodia’s future development.
At this juncture it is unclear whether the new airport is intended supplement or replace the established Phnom Penh Airport. SSCA spokesman Chanserey Vutha declined to comment on whether the existing airport will be dismantled once the new airport becomes operational. Closing down the existing airport would render the considerable amount of investment in the facility in recent years wasteful and short-sighted. A US$100 million expansion of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports commenced in 2014, extending the passenger terminals and parking lots and enlarging the commercial space with more shops and food and beverage outlets. In December 2017, as plans for the new airport were announced, a new US$26 million arrivals hall was inaugurated at Phnom Penh Airport, incorporating extension of the boarding concourse.
China has also confirmed financing for a new airport in Siem Reap, a resort town most renowned for Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction, the Angkor Wat temple complex. The new airport is to be constructed on a 700 hectare site in the Sotr Nikom district 50 kilometres outside Siem Reap city. Groundbreaking, marking the beginning of construction of the new airport, is imminent. The US$880 million agreement with China’s Yunnan Investment Holding Ltd (YIHL) allowing the state-owned company to manage the new Siem Reap airport under a 55-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession was actually announced in August 2017, with YIHL reportedly having already commenced land clearance. Double the capacity of the existing Siem Reap Airport the new airport will be able to handle 10 million passengers per year.
Number 13 in the list of 19 China-Cambodia development deals is an expressway linking two hotspots for Chinese investment: Sihanoukville and the existing Phnom Penh Airport. Sihanoukville, a resort city on the Gulf of Thailand, is a major destination for Chinese property investment, construction boom in recent years, hotels, casinos and thousands of apartments. China has also invested heavily in Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, promoted as Cambodian equivalent of the Shenzhen tech hub, with about 100 Chinese firms already operational.
The Sen Sok district surrounding Phnom Penh Airport is also a magnet for Chinese residential development and investment. The 190 kilometre highway, 4 lanes wide for most of its length, is expected to cost nearly US$2 billion. It could lead to evictions. Ministry of Public Works and Transport spokesman, Va Sim Sorya, said that the expressway would likely infringe upon people’s homes and land, but that it would be the responsibility of China’s state-owned China Communication Construction Co. to provide fair compensation for affected people, with the assistance of the ministry.
The planned new Phnom Penh airport appears to be linked with another road project. An article on the Construction & Property website, which includes a map of the new airport site and a video of the joint Cambodia and China signing ceremony, shows Ringroad Number 3 running through the north of the site. The Cambodian government is building three ring roads around the outskirts of Phnom Penh; construction of the third outer ring road, part of an expressway development masterplan US$9 billion expenditure on 850 kilometres of roads by 2020, is expected to commence in 2018.
Evictions for OCIC ‘satellite city’
By land area, the airport and ‘Airport City’ project is an even bigger project for OCIC than its 387 hectare, Chroy Changvar satellite city. The airport project’s US$1.5 billion budget is comparable with US$1.6 billion for Chroy Changvar, which is now under construction and the largest property development in Phnom Penh. A protracted land dispute with residents from six communities, living on and depending upon the land for years, dates back to 1994 when the government banned construction of homes on the land, designating it for development two years later. In 1998 Prime Minister Hun Sen reassured landowners who had lived on the site for a minimum of five years that they would not be evicted, reiterating this in a 2002 speech. A number of residences were duly excluded from the project site. But 200 families were not so fortunate, in spite of being in possession of official documentation proving their land ownership, and in 2016 were informed they would have to accept the compensation offer.
In February 2016 100 people representing 359 affected families facing eviction for Chroy Changvar petitioned Phnom Penh City Hall in a bid to resolve the land dispute with OCIC. They urged the government to halt alleged housing rights violations, calling either for higher compensation of US$400 per square metre as opposed to OCIC’s offer of just US$15, or to be given back half of their land, not merely 10 per cent of it as was proposed. In April 2016, in spite of the ongoing land dispute, OCIC, protected by 50 security guards, resumed bulldozing to make way for a new road and drainage system to serve the planned city, in spite of two families laying claim to the land being cleared and one resident stating that she had not been compensated. High security echoed 2014 when security guards stopped an attempt by 40 villagers to stop machinery pumping sand onto wetlands, causing water to rush back into the river, destabilizing their homes and putting them at risk of flooding. Protest continued into 2017, in February 40 villagers gathered to demand compensation for land taken for the new city.
Cambodia’s crackdown on democracy and human rights
China is, by far, Cambodia’s biggest trading partner and and its biggest source of foreign aid, investment and tourists. Backing from China has bolstered the Hun Sen government, the world’s longest serving Prime Minister, since 1985, and its investment increases in the face of a crackdown on democracy, freedom of expression and human rights. Cambodia is regressing to its authoritarian past as a political crackdown silences opposition figures, civil society groups and independent media. Critics are slammed with accusations of treason, defamation, collusion with foreign governments and being a threat to national security. Democracy is in a death spiral. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been dissolved, its leader Kem Sokha is in jail awaiting trial on charges of ‘treason’ and 118 senior party members have been banned from political activity for five years. CNRP is the only real opposition party, so Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) will effectively run unchallenged in the upcoming national elections in July. Human Rights Watch warned of the “death of democracy”.
In November 2017 two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists were charged with espionage; still in custody, they could face a 15 year jail sentence if found guilty. They were arrested on the basis of a vaguely worded provision in the penal code criminalizing passing information to a foreign state that could damage national security. Their defence lawyer says the charges against them are baseless and a petition for their release is currently before the Supreme Court. Under the same provision, an Australian film-maker was jailed for flying a drone at an opposition rally. Two former Cambodia Daily reporters were charged with incitement after asking questions during the lead-up to the June 2017 local elections. Both RFA and Cambodia Daily closed down their Cambodia newsrooms after being suddenly issued with enormous tax bills, US$6.3 million with one month to pay in the case of Cambodia Daily, a 24-year old independent newspaper which published its final edition with the damning headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship”. A representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the Cambodian government’s arrests and threats against journalists are a “clear and present danger to press freedom”.
The tightening grip of repression is also restricting activists. Amnesty International called for convictions against two environmental activists who filmed large vessels off Cambodia’s coast suspected of illegally carrying sand for export. Hun Vannak and Doem Kundy, from the NGO Mother Nature, were sentenced to one year in prison plus fines for this exposé aiming to galvanize action to curb the illicit trade on 26th January 2018. Foreign NGOs have been targeted, for example staff of US-based National Democratic Institute were ordered to leave the country, accused of receiving assistance from foreign governments.
As the Cambodian government persecutes citizens and NGOs for collaboration with foreign governments it is bending over backwards to enable China to increase its economic and geopolitical influence. As the 19 agreements for billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment in Cambodia’s infrastructure, including the new airport, were signed Cambodia pledged its support for China’s international goals. Specifically, Cambodia agreed to support China’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, where jurisdictional disputes and construction of ports, military installations and airstrips are straining its relationships with several countries in Southeast Asia. China also gains increased access to Cambodian resources, such as oil, gas and timber, and can take advantage of low tax rates and cheap labour. Critics argue that Cambodia is selling itself short and will pay a price for China’s financial support, warning of ending up in its giant ally’s pocket and already losing its voice on regional issues.
A new report ‘Solidarity Calls for Kulon Progo Farmers against Airport and Airport City‘ about farmers’ resistance against eviction for New Yogyakarta International Airport (NYIA) gives many insights into one of Indonesia’s key land rights struggles. Opposition to the airport dates back to 2011. The site, on the south coast of Java, comprises six villages which, before eviction commenced, hosted 11,501 residents. Farmers worked for many generations to increase the fertility of the land, establishing successful farms and thriving communities. Eviction from farmland means many thousands of agricultural labourers also lose their livelihoods and excavation of coastal areas has destroyed fishing farmers’ ponds.
The megaproject was approved without the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) even though there are serious ecological concerns, including the destruction of sand dunes which act as a bulwark protecting from coastal erosion and tsunamis and prevention salinization of groundwater. The report includes a map of the tsunami hazard area. Cultural heritage, such as the Glagah Stupa historical Buddhist site and Mount Lanang prayer monument, is also being obliterated.
The report is filled with striking photographs showing the progress of the airport and the resistance: bulldozers at work clearing land for the airport and the devastation that is left behind, evictions and protest actions including roadside banners, marches, blocking bulldozers, a road block and a hunger strike. Infographics show the projected development of NYIA not just as airport infrastructure but as an airport city, the affected areas of construction and inhabitants, and the food crops (approximately 450 tonnes annually per hectare including melons, eggplant and chilies) and livelihoods being displaced by the airport.
The airport project has divided the community. Many citizens have refused to sell their land for the airport, whilst some are willing to sell their land for compensation. Supporters of the airport worked to widen the social, economic and political rifts, facilitating the project. Resistance to land acquisition has met with state intimidation, repression and criminalization. Four farmers were imprisoned for four months. The report contains a chronology of violence against local residents resisting eviction and their supporters. Most recently, beginning on 28th November 2017, as another phase of eviction took place, police blocked road access to a group of residents’ homes, cut off their electricity supply, destroyed plants in their gardens and intimidated them. Police attacked a woman causing bruising on her neck and a number of citizens supporting the residents experienced violence at the hands of police, one person suffered a head injury and another suffered injuries from being dragged along the road.
An ‘airport city’ or aerotropolis – comprising shopping malls, offices, hotels, golf resort, tourism village, leisure town, industrial park and residential areas – is planned around the new airport, increasing the land area to 2,000 hectares and potentially leading to eviction of even more citizens. A new solidarity organization Paguyuban Warga Penolak Penggusuran Kulon Progo (PWPP-KP), has been formed to oppose the airport and airport city, allied with an organization of neighbouring farmers resisting sand mining, and supported by many citizens and environmental groups, including Jogja Darurat Agraria.
The Polish government has approved a plan for a mega-airport and ‘airport city’ on a 3,000 hectare site. An area of farmland has been identified as a suitable location for the project.
On 7th November, the second day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, the Polish government approved a plan to build a new mega-airport, called Poland Central Airport or New Central Polish Airport, handling as many as 100 million passengers per year. The project would result in a a major increase in Poland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Poland, host of the next climate summit, COP24, in December 2018, is already widely regarded as a climate renegade for its continued investment in coal plants, and had the dubious honour of being awarded Fossil of the Day award in Bonn, for its relentless efforts to siphon European Union (EU) funds for clean energy into subsidizing its ageing coal plants. Announcement of a major airport project makes a further mockery of the country’s commitments to address climate change.
The proposed airport site is in Baranów, a rural gmina (administrative district) 40 kilometres to the west of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The map below, commissioned by Polski Fundusz Rozwoju (PFR) in 2008 and included in an article published on 8th October 2017, about a meeting on the airport between representatives of the government and Baranów municipality, shows two areas identified as suitable for the airport project: a 3,421 hectare area to the north of the map and a larger 11,338 hectare area to the south. Another variant of this map was included in a 100 page document discussed at the government meeting which adopted the airport plan, Poland’s biggest infrastructure project in recent years, on 7th November. At this meeting it was confirmed that the planned location of the airport is the Stanisławów village area, near the southern boundary of the area identified as suitable for the project.
A map produced by GAAM shows the villages within the boundaries of the two areas identified as suitable for the airport project and the existing road and rail links.
A satellite image of the Stanisławów village area, confirmed as the planned location for the new central airport, shows the villages and small parcels of cultivated land that characterize the wider area.
A mega-airport, multi-modal transportation hub and an aerotropolis
The schedule for the new airport is for preparatory works to be complete by the end of 2019, then for construction to be complete and operations to commence by mid-2027. A mega-airport is planned, one of the largest in the world with four runways, initially serving 45 million passengers per year, rising to 100 million, a passenger throughput as high as the world’s busiest airports, almost as high as Atlanta in the US and higher than the current traffic levels at Dubai Airport and Beijing Capital Airport. A multi-modal transportation hub is planned, integrating the new mega-airport with existing and new road and rail infrastructure. Plans for the airport include a rail station and the project is also referred to as Centralny Port Komunikacyjny (CPK), which translates as Central Communication Port. The proposed airport site is between Warsaw and Łódź, Poland’s third largest city, and a high-speed rail line connecting the two cities is planned. The A2 motorway running between Poland’s western and eastern borders is immediately south of the proposed site. Immediately north of the airport site is the rail line between Berlin and Moscow, via Warsaw, providing a high-speed service that commenced operations in December 2016.
The 3,000 hectare land area for the new airport is far larger than would be required even if the number of passengers meets the projection of 100 million per annum. A 3,000 hectare site is more than 50 per cent larger than the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta in the US which handles 104 million passengers per year. Atlanta Airport’s site covers 1,900 hectares and encompasses substantial commercial development including more than 200 concession outlets such as retail, food and beverages. The oversized proposed land area for Poland Central Airport could be linked to plans for an ‘airport city‘ or aerotropolis. A 1,200 hectare new city is envisaged, with hotels and showrooms. Under the government resolution outlining plans for the new airport legal and infrastructural changes to Baranów would allow for construction of business parks, conference centres, an exhibition centre and office complexes.
A government financed megaproject
The budget for the airport project, combined with the road and rail infrastructure, is estimated at between €7 – 8 billion. Polish citizens will bear the brunt of the enormous cost of the project; the main investor is the government. The 7th November 2017 resolution announcing construction of the airport approved the financing structure as well as the location. An article in the second 2017 edition of Airport Development News, an industry newsletter published by Airports Council International, stated that two state-owned financial institutions, Polish Development Fund (Polski Fundusz Rozwoju – PFR) and Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (BGK), Poland’s national development bank, would be ‘heavily involved’ in financing the project.
Possibilities for European funding have been considered. The Airport Development News article states that between 75 and 80 per cent of airport construction will be financed by international institutions such as the EIB (European Investment Bank) and EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Such investment by the EIB and EBRD is doubtful as state aid rules preclude allocation of EU funds for construction of the airport. But a June 2017 article published by legal analyst firm Lexology stated that EU funds could be tapped for the road and rail elements of the project. The total cost of the rail infrastructure elements of the megaproject complex is estimated to be between €1.89 billion and €2.1 billion, the total cost of roads and highways between €424,000 and €1.6 billion.
Uncertainty over accessing EU funds has led to attempts to secure financing from Chinese sources. The airport was one of the vast transportation and energy infrastructure projects discussed at the May 2017 Summit of the Belt and Road in China, where the President of China repeated assurances about new credit lines by China Development Bank and China Exim Bank, and one of the outcomes was signing of a contract between Polish and Chinese state railways on facilitating container transport. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution supporting construction of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region, is reported to have expressed an interest in co-financing the Poland Central Airport project, if it is in line with the bank’s policy of promoting ‘interconnectivity’ between continents, which would mean that the airport would have to promote passenger traffic with Asia. Potential benefits to Chinese exporters from the airport are evident. The project would support the Polish government’s intention to establish the country as a port of entry for Chinese goods into the EU single market.
Industry experts doubt feasibility of the new airport
Some industry experts are critical of the new airport, doubtful that a new global hub could compete with established European hub airports such as Schiphol and Frankfurt and saying that it would struggle to meet its traffic projections and fail to make a profit. And adoption of Poland Central Airport as a government priority reverses many years of sloughing huge sums of public money into several new small regional airports. A major new hub airport would compete with these regional airports, many of which are already struggling with low passenger levels and unprofitable. Some industry experts warn that opening a new hub airport would be likely to lead to the closure of several existing Polish airports.
Expenditure on a new airport that results in closure of established regional airports would be an astonishing waste of public funds. Between 2007 and 2015 Poland sank at least US$1.58 billion into building and expanding 14 regional airports, with 40 per cent of this funding coming from the European Union (EU). This was highlighted in a report Flights of fancy: A case study on aviation and EU funds in Poland published in 2012 by CEE Bankwatch Network which critiqued the development and operation of small regional airports which were not financially viable, placing a strain on regional and local government budgets, along with allocation of EU funds for rail connections to airports, arguing it should be redirected to serving mobility needs within regions.
Aviation industry consultancy CAPA (Centre for Aviation) reports that Poland Central Airport would replace Warsaw Chopin Airport, the city’s main airport located south of the city with limited room for expansion. Bloomberg also reports that, under the government plan for the new airport, Warsaw Chopin Airport would eventually be shut down. Closing Warsaw Chopin Airport would be a woeful example of enormous waste of public funds and short-sighted planning. A major, multi-million Euro programme of upgrades to Warsaw Chopin Airport, increasing its capacity to 10.4 million passengers per annum, was completed less than a year ago, in December 2016. The terminal was modernized including installation of new check-in desks and an observation deck, a new long-range fuel pipeline constructed and the runways, taxiways and apron have been upgraded. The airport upgrade programme cost €166,760,000 with the EU Cohesion Fund contributing €32,900,000.
Rafal Milczarski, CEO of Poland’s state-owned carrier, LOT Polish Airlines, has said that Warsaw Chopin Airport should be closed down and the land sold to real estate developers to help finance the new airport. This would certainly benefit LOT, a leading proponent of the central airport. Indeed, supporting growth of the national airline is part of the rationale for the project. But the role of LOT in the new airport is a factor in skepticism regarding its viability. LOT is a relatively small carrier with fewer than ten wide-bodied aircraft. A high level of investment would be required for LOT to become one of Central Europe’s main carriers, one of the goals of the the airport project. Critics are of the opinion that the LOT lacks the scale and financial capacity necessary for commercial viability of the new airport project. LOT Polish Airlines also has a history of government intervention to support ailing finances. The carrier was a direct beneficiary of state funds in 2012-2014 when it was rescued from bankruptcy with a €200 million state bailout.
There are serious doubts over the viability of the Poland Central Airport project. The only certainties are vast public expenditure on infrastructure and loss of a large area of farmland.
An 80 square kilometre aerotropolis is planned in Nijgadh, Nepal. The projects entails displacement of 7,380 people and felling of 2.4 million trees.
A major aerotropolis is planned in Nijgadh, in the Bara District in southeastern Nepal, 175 kilometers south of Kathmandu. If the megaproject proceeds as planned as many as 2.4 million trees will be felled, and 7,380 people living in the Tangiya Basti settlement within the site will be displaced. The government has repeatedly stated that Nijgadh Airport with a 80 square kilometer site, will be the largest, by area, in South Asia. An airport city adjoining the airport is planned. The map below shows the proposed Nijgadh Airport boundary as reported in the Nepal Gazette on 5th June 2015. The site is between two braided rivers, Pashah to the west and Bakiya to the east. The northern boundary is the Mahendra Highway between the two rivers. Most of the site, about 90 per cent, is densely forested land, predominantly consisting of Shorea robusta trees, which are also known as Sal or Sakhua. The settlement in the middle of the airport site, where about 7,380 residents living in 1,476 households face eviction, is called Tangiya Basti.
A series of government announcements underlined determination to pursue the project. In June 2014 the government emphasized determination to attract investors, reportedly ‘preparing to complete the pre-construction works to spare the investors all the hassles whether the government, private sector or foreign investors invest on the project’ as preparations were being made to fence off the land. January 2016 saw another high level push to commence construction of Nijgadh airport. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) was instructed to begin land acquisition, site clearance and resettlement of affected people and the Ministry of Soil Conservation was directed to fell trees and clear the site for the construction of primary and access roads to the airport site within two months.
It appears that a confirmed investor in the airport has proved elusive. Public funds will be used to develop the project. On 24th May 2016 the government allocated US$46.4 million for the construction of Nijgadh Airport, for land acquisition, resettlement of displaced people, environmental impact assessment and preparation of a detailed project report. The Tourism Minister said the project would be developed in phases, beginning with a single runway facility with capacity for 20 million passengers annually, with the accompanying airport city to be constructed at a later stage. In January 2017 the government assigned preparatory work on Nijgadh Airport to the Nepal Army, tasking it with building a perimeter road and an access road to the area earmarked for the runway, and clearing trees to make way for construction.
600,000 trees could be felled to fund Nijgadh Airport construction
By May 2017 forest earmarked for Nijgadh Airport remained unfelled, but vast numbers of trees could be transformed from an obstacle to airport construction into a source of funding for it. A news article entitled ‘Money grows on trees for Nijgadh airport project‘ reported a statement by officials that a vast swathe of the forest, about 600,000 trees, will be felled for the airport. The market value of the lumber was estimated at nearly US$581 million, which would be sufficient to pay for half of the US$1.172 billion construction costs for the first phase of the airport. The Forest Ministry permitted the Tourism Ministry to conduct an EIA (environmental impact assessment) on the condition that 25 trees are planted for every tree that is cut down.
Tourism Ministry officials pointed out that tree planting on this scale this would be difficult to implement, as felling 600,000 trees would require the planting of more than 15 million saplings. The suggestion that 15 million trees could be planted is more than merely ‘difficult’; it is completely unfeasible. Any such mega tree plantation could not replace the rich biodiversity of an long-established forest ecosystem and an enormous land area would be required, inevitably entailing the wholesale obliteration of an existing ecosystem in order to plant such a huge number of trees.
2.4 million trees could be felled for 80 square kilometre aerotropolis
Subsequent announcements in July and August 2017 threaten the felling of even more trees for Nijgadh Airport, over 2.4 million, to make way for the full 80 square kilometer aerotropolis. The first phase of the airport will spread over between 1,000 and 2,000 hectares, and CAAN has assigned the Nepal Army to clear trees at the airport construction site and to build access and perimeter roads. The government has allocated US$14.6 million for the project this fiscal year with CAAN setting aside an additional US$29.2 million to pay for initial works, if required.
A short video of the forest at risk of being destroyed for Nijgadh airport was posted on Twitter, by Milan Dhungana, who commented: “It’s very hard to believe that this beautiful dense forest is soon to be vanished to give way to a new airport.”
Residents of Tangiya Basti, 7,380 people living in the settlement in the midst of the forest land earmarked for Nijgadh aerotropolis, face displacement. In June 2014 MoCTCA was attempting to settle disputes over compensation for land acquisition and people’s demands for resettlement arrangements. By March 2016 the task of collecting land details had been completed, with land valuation about to commence, along with issuing public notices for land acquisition. Land had been categorized as under individual ownership, public land and ‘unidentified ownership’, the majority belonging in the latter category. A video shows the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) sign erected at the Nijgadh Airport site.
A 35-day notice was published for landowners to apply for compensation in March 2017. The amount of compensation for land acquired for the airport had been confirmed and the notice required landowners to harvest their crops within a month, prohibiting them from cutting any trees or plants. But compensation is only available to a minority of residents who have recognized land ownership. A September 2016 project report by Tourism Secretary Prem Kumar Rai stated that 110 households were eligible for compensation, with between 80 and 85 of these households agreeing to the compensation and the remainder reluctant to accept the government’s offer. The majority of residents facing eviction, about 1,400 households, have been categorized as ‘squatters’. Chief of the airport project, Hari Adhikari, said that nothing had been done to resettle the ‘squatters’ living on the construction site. In July 2017 the Himalayan News Service reported that the government’s preparations to acquire land for Nijgadh Airport had left residents of the Tangiya settlement, about 7,380 people, fearing their displacement and in a state of panic over their resettlement.
Tangiya Basti residents are struggling for new homes and livelihood opportunities. The Tangiyabasti Stakeholders Committee stated that construction of the airport had made their future uncertain and held a press conference where they demanded rehabilitation. Residents facing eviction are insisting upon replacement land and food supplies, provision of water, electricity and education in the place where they will be relocated, and one job for each of the affected families. Chair of the Tangiyabasti Stakeholders Committee, Ramesh Kumar Sapotka, said that they would refuse to vacate the area unless their demands were addressed.
Tangiya Basti residents have been living in limbo for years, knowing they face eviction for the long delayed airport, which was proposed 20 years ago. The settlement was established by the government for flood victims in 1975 and the majority of people living there are from the marginalized Tamang ethnic group. For more than 40 years the government has failed to fund essential services for their established settlement, or to support their own efforts to develop these services. Tangiya Basti residents lack electricity, a reliable drinking water supply, electricity and roads. Construction of schools has been cancelled leaving pupils with a dangerous seven kilometer walk through dense forest to get to classes, with the risk of being trampled on by wild elephants that roam freely in the area. Many locals have to go to a neighboring town to make telephone calls and walk for several hours to reach healthcare facilities.
Fast-track to destruction
A 76 kilometer road, a ‘fast-track highway’, linking Nijgadh Airport with Kathmandu, has been on the drawing board since 1996. Reducing the travel time to the capital city to one-hour, is considered essential for the feasibility of the airport, but the road megaproject has also been plagued with delays. A Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the ‘fast-track’, a four-lane mega-highway, crossed by seven bridges and expanding to six lanes, was completed in August 2015.
Preparatory work for construction of the road was fraught with technical problems. The Nepal Army began excavation works without regard to the specifications for a four-lane expressway and the challenges of construction works on steeply sloping terrain, which could cause landslides. After years of delays the foundation stone for the expressway was laid on 28th May 2017, and the project handed over to the Nepal Army which will oversee construction. In the interim the road has fallen prey to the cost escalation common to megaprojects around the world. Over a seven year period the estimated construction cost of the expressway has doubled to over US$1 billion.
Megaproject mania, misplaced priorities
The Nepal government’s relentless pursuit of Nijgadh Airport and the fast-track continues in the face of criticism that the projects are draining funds from other regions of the country. Meanwhile, other megaprojects languish incomplete and have fallen far behind schedule, such as a 28 kilometer tunnel to bring water from Melamchi to Kathmandu and transmission lines. Massive deforestation looms to clear the designated site for the airport even though funding for construction has not been secured. Successive administrations have put forward different plans for financing Nijgadh Airport. As late as August 2017 no decision has been made on funding. Two financial models have been put forward. BOOT public-private partnership (PPP) would involve foreign investment or private financing. Alternatively, the government would develop the project under the engineering, procurement, construction and finance (EPCF) model.
Megaproject mania, in particular massive government expenditure on a gigantic airport, multilane highway and aerotropolis, is a serious case of misplaced priorities in one of the world’s poorest countries. Nepal is still reeling from a devastating earthquake on 25th April 2015 which killed nearly 9,000 people and destroyed over 700,000 homes. Political infighting has delayed reconstruction and, in spite of billions of dollars pledged in aid, outside of Kathmandu the majority of affected families are still living in desperate conditions, in tents or makeshift shelters, enduring harsh winter weather and heavy monsoons. In these circumstances, spending vast amounts of public money on a mega-airport that would displace over 7,000 people is nonsensical.