New mega-airport and ‘Airport City’ in Cambodia triggers land disputes

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.

Proposed site of new Phnom Penh airport and Airporrot City

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 red is the approximately 700 hectare area allocated for the airport, the adjoining shaded area, approximately 1,900 hectares, is 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.

Road projects

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.


Kulon Progo airport struggle in New Internationalist magazine

Eviction of Kulon Progo villagers from their homes and farmland for New Yogyakarta International Airport and a surrounding ‘aero city’, and the resistance struggle, a key land rights struggle in Indonesia, garnered global publicity in this article for New Internationalist magazine, published in September 2017. NewInt Kulon Progo


Navi Mumbai Airport – displacement and destruction

3,500 families struggle for fair rehabilitation for displacement to make way for Navi Mumbai International Airport. Mangroves and other bird habitats will be lost and pre-construction blasting work has damaged houses and caused injuries.

Approximately 3,500 families residing in 10 villages face displacement from their homes and land for a new airport in Navi Mumbai, in the Kovar-Panvel area 40 kilometres to the east of Mumbai on India’s west coast. First proposed in 1997 and approved by the government in 2007, the response of affected people, resisting land acquisition and demanding improved rehabilitation assistance, is just one of many factors that stalled the Navi Mumbai International Airport project. The inevitability of environmental damage led to delays in being granted government clearances. Biodiverse wildlife habitats encompassed within the site will be destroyed: 121 hectares of forest, 162 hectares of mangroves and 404 hectares of mudflats. Environmental groups have long criticized the airport site selection, saying that the government refused to consider possible alternatives. Waterlogged and low-lying, the site will need to be raised from 2 metres to 5 metres above sea level, posing construction challenges.

GAAM map of Navi Mumbai International Airport siteA mega-airport is planned, handling 10 million passengers annually upon completion of the first phase, rising to 60 million passengers per year upon commencement of full commercial operations with two parallel runways, which is scheduled for 2030. If this traffic projection proves accurate Navi Mumbai will be India’s busiest airport. The airport core area, allocated for aeronautical activities, is 1,160 hectares of land. In addition to the core airport site, three areas have been earmarked for non-aeronautical activities (airport-linked commercial development such as hotels and retail), taking the total airport area to 2,268 hectares. Three plots of land have been allocated for rehabilitation and resettlement for the affected villagers.

Levelling the site and diverting rivers

Villagers have not yet relocated to the resettlement areas. Yet, in October 2017, as they remain in their homes, massive earthworks preparing the site for construction of the airport began, a work programme that is expected to take between 18 and 24 months.  The course of Ulwe river which runs north-south through the site is to be re-routed by 90° and the Ghadi river running alongside the northern boundary is also being re-channelled. Hills are being blasted away with explosives to make way for the airport runway, the soil and stones being utilized for filling in and levelling the site. The height of Ulwe hill, the largest hill on the site, is being reduced from 90 metres to 10 metres. Vast volumes of loose earth and stones will then have to be compacted down to make it stable enough to withstand airport operations.

Difficult terrain brings serious construction difficulties. The land is swampy and flood-prone, large areas are frequently waterlogged, especially during the monsoon season. “Even from a simple engineering point of view, building an airstrip on reclaimed land, mudflats and mangroves – it is going to be very unstable,” predicted Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. As of December 2017 most of the site was underwater. Critics of the airport project also point out the high level of state expenditure on pre-construction earthworks that are necessary to make the fragile coastal zone sufficiently resilient to withstand the new airport, an estimated 2,345 crore (US$370 million).

CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation), a city planning agency formed by the Maharashtra state government, is responsible for implementing the airport project. GVK, an Indian conglomerate with interests in energy, resources, transport and other sectors, has been awarded the contract to build and operate the airport. By May 2018, CIDCO expects to hand the project over to GVK for completion of pre-construction groundwork on the airport site before the building phase begins. Predictions of project cost escalation have proved well founded. By 2017 CIDCO’s cost estimate for the project had more than tripled, escalating from US$753 million to US$2.5 billion.

As earthworks In November 2017 two thousand residents of the villages of Targhar, Pargaon, Ulwe, Kolhi, Kopar, Ganesh Puri, Chinchpada, Dungi and Manghar gathered to step up their demands for fair compensation and rehabilitation from CIDCO for vacating their land and homes to make way for the airport project. The villagers discussed many concerns including unnecessary land acquisition and united their struggles to form a new organization: Navi Mumbai International Airport Affected Peoples, which will take up their demands with CIDCO.

The villagers’ meeting followed a major protest by residents of six villages on 12th October, which brought pre-construction work on the airport site to a halt. An article on the news website stated that 5,000 people attended the protest. Only 10 per cent of the affected families had vacated their homes, over 3,200 families were still living on the site and they resolved to remain in their homes until the plots of land allocated for resettlement were developed. On 27th October it was announced that, following a meeting between CIDCO officials and affected residents, attended by 500 people and with a heavy police presence, work on the Navi Mumbai Airport site would resume under heavy police protection. CIDCO reported that four platoons of state reserve police had been made available.

Blasting damages houses, injures workers and villagers

The state is protecting the airport from people with legitimate grievances, but failing to protect people from construction of the airport. Blasting work caused residents to complain about tremors affecting their houses and has caused injuries. At the time of the October 2017 protest explosives were being set off three times per day, loosening the ground in order to cut and level Ulwe hill to make way for the airport runway. Taking place at a distance as little as 100 metres from people’s homes blasting sent stones flying distances of up to 200 metres, including into a nearby school. Vibrations from the blasting had caused cracks in the walls of houses in the village of Ulwe, making some people afraid that their houses might collapse.

On 6th January 2018 five engineers working in the site were injured, two of them severely, by supposedly ‘controlled’ blasting work that was underway 300 metres away from them. Explosions had triggered a landslide and the workers were hit by falling rocks. Villagers in Siddhart Nagar which is situated at the foot of Ulwe hill suffered injuries too; five women were bruised by stones coming through their roofs and a seven-year old boy who had been playing outside his house needed two stitches to his head. Affected residents, who had argued that blasting should not commence until they are rehabilitated, organized a protest march opposing blasting on the airport site and called for an atrocity case to be registered against CIDCO and GVK. Two days after the landslide, as GVK signed the concession agreement with CIDCO, the men of the village stalled work at the blasting site while the women made an unsuccessful attempt to meet with CIDCO officials at their offices. The father of the boy injured in the landslide, said “My wife and a few other women went to meet CIDCO officials, but they were not entertained. Why is it difficult to rehabilitate us when crores are being spent on the project?”

After the blasting injuries CIDCO officials ordered Siddhart Nagar residents to vacate their homes to get them out of the way while blasting work takes place, for two hours every day 1-2pm and 5-6pm. Villagers voiced strong objections to this disruption of their daily lives and being forced to stand in scorching sun. CIDCO’s lame excuse for undertaking the dangerous blasting work with people still in the vicinity is a claim that Siddhart Nagar villagers have not been rehabilitated because more than half of of the households were established after the 2013 cut-off date for eligibility. A representative of the villagers insists this is not the case and that they have documents proving their residency in the area for the past seven to eight years.

Residents’ long struggle for fair rehabilitation

Residents being displaced for Navi Mumbai Airport, facing loss of their homes, communities, land and livelihoods, have sustained a long-term struggle for fair rehabilitation. Back in 2010 a public hearing was boycotted by residents of all 18 affected villages standing to lose their land. Approval of the airport project appeared to be a foregone conclusion; journalist Nidhi Jamwal wrote that the hearing was ‘wrapped up in hour’, with the few journalists that attended having been told by their employers that negative stories would not be published. There was not much to report anyway as a recently completed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a study on the diversion and channeling of rivers were not made public. People from the affected villages stood outside the meeting waving black flags in protest, demanding due compensation.

Villagers being displaced for the airport, referred to as project affected persons (PAPs),  are dissatisfied with the rehabilitation and resettlement areas and say that the offers of land and cash sums to build new houses in these designated areas are in sufficient to compensate for what they will lose. PAPS are being offered construction aid to build their new houses, but say that the amount, calculated in 2011, is low. Their request that construction aid be increased to reflect current costs seems particularly reasonable in the light of CIDCO’s repeated upward revision of airport construction costs.

At the time of the 12th October 2017 protest, which was precipitated by apprehensions over CIDCO’s looming 17th October deadline for villagers to vacate their homes, Nata Pratil, president of the committee of MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) which is demanding justice for the 3,500 families facing displacement, said that the deal offered to villagers to give up their land was altered after they had agreed to it, the allocation of space for a new house being reduced. CIDCO claimed that the plots for displaced families were ready, but PAP representatives disputed this, saying that schools, utilities, streetlights, roads and a crematorium had yet to be developed. And PAPs said nothing had been done to make provision for replacing temples that will be lost to the airport. CIDCO had committed to allocation of plots of land suitable for relocation of ten old temples, along with compensation for rebuilding. In November 2017 some PAPs alleged that records proving their land ownership had been destroyed by CIDCO.

Loss of mangroves and the risk of bird-strikes

A significant regulatory hurdle to building Navi Mumbai airport, pertaining to the mangrove forest in the airport site, was removed in 2009. Coastal Regulation Zone notification, ensuring tight controls over construction, was amended in order to allow conversion of mangrove forest to an airport. Replacing mangroves with the impermeable concrete and tarmac of an airport will disrupt the water balance in the wider region. Mangroves are a natural buffer between land and sea, the interwoven roots preventing coastal erosion, absorbing rainfall and tidal surges. Excess water has to go somewhere and removal of mangroves for the airport could make the surrounding area more susceptible to flooding.

CIDCO’s suggestion of compensatory plantation to make up for loss of mangroves, about 200 kilometres distance from the airport site in Dahuna, met with criticism that these complex, locale-specific ecosystems, richly biodiverse and taking time to evolve, cannot be created instantly. CIDCO then suggested a mangrove sanctuary close to the airport site, commissioning a study of wetland bird habitats that was conducted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The study highlighted the conflict between airport operatiosn and birds. Dr. Deepak Apte, director of BNHS cautioned that “A mangrove park within the perimeter of aircraft takeoff and landing zones can be an extremely serious aviation hazard”. Mangroves are an attractive habitat for many bird species, so a mangrove sanctuary poses a risk of bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can cause fatal accidents.

In 2015 the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change National Board for Wildlife withdrew the requirement for a mangrove sanctuary as part of the project. The developer will be required to make the area designated for the mangrove sanctuary unattractive to birds to reduce the risk of bird strikes. An environmentalist from Vanashakti, an NGO focused on forest, mangrove and wetland protection, questioned the sincerity of CIDCO’s promise of a mangrove sanctuary, wondering if it was known to be unfeasible due to the bird strike risk, and merely a ruse to help get clearance for the project.

Airport operations are likely to impinge upon birds habitats beyond the site – coastline, creeks, mangroves and inland wetlands. A survey conducted BNHS showed an estimated 266 bird species living within a 10 kilometre radius of the airport site, including the Karnala Bird Sanctuary. Aviation experts advised that a plan for a bird sanctuary to protect migratory flamingos, in the Panju-Funde wetlands, 20 kilometres from the airport site, would be under the take-off and landing flight paths and a bird strike disaster waiting to happen. Large birds such as flamingos pose the most significant bird strike risk. Debi Goenka criticized the airport authorities’ opposition to the Panju-Funde bird sanctuary: “In the name of development, we cannot simply kill all the beautiful birds and destroy their wetlands’ habitat. They could have easily shifted the proposed airport to some other place 10 years ago”

Interlinked megaprojects and car dependency

Construction of another megaproject, the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), the longest bridge in India – is to be speeded up, for completion in time for it to be linked with Navi Mumbai Airport. Stretching across Mumbai Bay, six lanes wide and 22 kilometres in length, the new bridge will link the mainland with Sewri on the eastern edge of South Mumbai. Like the airport, the bridge is set to destroy birdlife habitats. First mooted in the 1970s it met with opposition because of the impact on Sewri mudflats, an area containing mangroves and providing an important feeding ground for the thousands of flamingos flocking there every winter. MTHL’s starting point in Sewri, extending along 5 kilometres of coastline, poses a threat to an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 flamingos and 38 hectares of formerly protected mangroves will be lost, along with 8.8 hectares of protected forest at the Navi-Mumbai end.

The shoreline sections of MTHL will impact on people as well as the environment. A 2016 assessment survey revealed that the homes of 229 families, 53 business premises and 10 commercial structures in Sewri will be demolished to make way for MTHL and an official outlined a plan to resettle then in Bhakti Park, Wadala, in southern Mumbai. Artisanal fisherfolk from nine villages whose livelihoods are impacted by MTHL will receive a one-time compensation fee. As of July 2017 over 3,000 compensation claims had been submitted and the Mumbai Metropolitan Development Authority (MMRDA) was about to begin sifting through the applications to identify ‘genuine claimants’. The cost of the MTHL bridge is comparable to Navi Mumbai International Airport at US$2.6 billion. Since 2005 when bids for the MTHL were first invited the cost has escalated significantly, by 350 per cent, due to delays, rising input costs, mandatory environmental and rehabilitation and design changes. Citizens will foot the bill directly through tolls and indirectly through various taxes.

A 5.8 kilometre coastal road connecting the MTHL bridge with Navi Mumbai International Airport is a megaproject in its own right; large stretches of the road will be elevated with a 1.76 kilometre section over mangroves to be built on stilts. The coastal road is just one of a proliferation of road infrastructure projects enabling traffic growth to support the new airport: new roads, widening of existing roads up to 8 and 10 lanes, loop roads and interchanges. Journalist Sanjay Banerjee envisages these ‘speed corridors’, described by CIDCO as enabling “smooth and seamless vehicular movements”, having an ‘octopus-like grip‘ across Mumbai. The airport-centric road building programme is designing in a high level of dependence on cars, it is based on a projection that 85% of air travellers will use private vehicles.


Report – Kulon Progo farmers against airport and aerotropolis

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.

Courageous resistance to forced eviction for New Yogyakarta International Airport

On the morning of 27th November 400 officials – police, army and representatives of Indonesia’s state-owned airport developer PT Angkasa Pura I – arrived to survey land for New Yogyakarta International Airport (NYIA) in the Temon District in the Kulonprogo Regency, on the south coast of central Java. An attempted land grab for the airport, and the courageous resistance of residents resisting forced eviction is documented in a video by Jogja Darurat Agraria. In the space of just two days bulldozers have wreaked devastation reminiscent of a powerful earthquake that struck the island of Java in 2006. Parts of some houses have been destroyed and trees and plants uprooted leaving bare earth.

The land does not belong to PT Angkasa Pura I and residents are refusing to leave or to sell their property. Officials, some of them armed with guns, inform the residents that they will register their houses and instruct them to vacate, and that they have been instructed to clear the land, to tear down everything, by 4th December. But 300 residents are refusing to sell the land passed on to them by their ancestors. Their livelihoods depend upon the farming that they are determined to continue, their values embedded in the culture and nature of the southern coast area.

Women play a prominent role in resisting the forced eviction for the new airport, they stand their ground against the intimidation of large numbers of male officials, facing down heavy verbal aggression, refusing to obey commands, refuting claims that the airport is for their economic benefit and asserting their right to remain in their homes. A crowd of officials confront another woman on her doorstep, try to push the door down, shout at her to get out and try to force their way into her house. She shouts out to the officials that their role is to protect civilians. Then some men begin to wrench open the door. Another woman, also confronted by officials at her door, says that they told her that received three warnings of the impending eviction, she denies this and insists that she did not receive any warning.

Officials are shown cutting off the electricity supply to some of the houses. This move is intended to amplify the threat of destruction and make other residents give up their resistance to eviction, dismantle their homes to salvage whatever they can, and vacate the area. Jogja Darurat Agraria posted photos on Facebook showing villagers gathering to witness and resist the bulldozers at work and the severing of electrical supplies.

The Indonesian government’s attempt to evict Kulon Progo villagers from their homes and farmland at this particular time, beginning on 27th November 2017, adds irony to insult and intimidation; 29th November is designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders. A video posted on 28th November shows distressed residents – women, men and children – bravely standing and lying in the path of the bulldozers as roofs are ripped off houses and trees uprooted. They are dragged away by officials. Cutting off electricity supplies continues.

The new airport is a key project of the Indonesian government, led by President Joko Widodo, which is pushing for accelerated infrastructure development. PT Angkasa Pura I claims that the process of land acquisition and clearance for NYIA is under control. In reality a land grab is taking place. Forcible eviction for the airport is a shameful and serious abuse of human rights and the very opposite of the government’s stated commitment to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS), specifically SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The struggle against eviction for New Yogyakarta International Airport dates back to 2011. The site comprises six villages, 2,875 households with 11,501 residents, most of whom sustain agricultural livelihoods cultivating many crops in the fertile soil, including watermelons, chillie peppers and eggplant. Construction of the mega-project commenced and continues without approval of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and there are serious concerns that destruction of sand dunes will make the coastline more vulnerable to erosion and flooding. An aerotropolis around the airport is planned, a 2,000 hectare ‘airport city’ containing hotels and other tourism facilities, shopping malls and industrial zones.

Authorities have perpetrated repeated acts of repression and violence against villagers resisting displacement for NYIA, which, in its pre-construction phase, was referred to as Kulon Progo Airport. The worst incidence occurred on 16th February 2016. Police and army officers overseeing a boundary-marking procedure subjected a number of residents who had gathered to voice their objections to a vicious and brutal attack. People were choked, kicked and trampled on. The case was taken up by the Asian Human Rights Commission which condemned the excessive use of force and called for prosecution of the officers who were in charge of the exercise.

Nijgadh aerotropolis – 2.4 million trees could be felled, and 7,380 people displaced

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.

Nepal - proposed boundary of Nijgadh Airport, an 80 square kilometre aerotropolis
Nijgadh Airport site boundary , as described in Nepal Gazette, 5th June 2015

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.”

Photos of the forest that is at risk of being felled were also posted on Twitter:

7,380 people face displacement

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.

Taoyuan Aerotropolis – public hearings and land expropriation

This paper for the 2016 HDCA (Human Development and Capability Association) conference documents the public hearings for land expropriation for Taoyuan Aerotropolis. The 4,771 hectare aerotropolis is the biggest megaproject planned by the Taiwan government, threatening to displace 46,000 people from their homes and farmland. It is part of wider picture of ‘Development-Induced Displacement’ – eviction, often forcible, for infrastructure projects. Following revision of the Land Acquisition Act in 2012, the Taoyuan Aerotropolis case is the first in Taiwan history to hold public hearings on land expropriation.

The paper argues that land expropriation must serve the community – evaluated on social, economic, cultural  and ecological aspects – and be fully compensated, and considers the potential for these public hearings to bring deliberative democracy to the land expropriation policy and ensure that people who are, actually or potentially, displaced genuinely own development rights in the process. With the interpretation of public interest still controlled by the state and its allies, the authors conclude that, in their current form, the public hearings cannot achieve these goals.