On 12th April a bill was submitted to the House of Representatives of the Philippines calling for repeal of a franchise granted to San Miguel Aerocity Inc., a subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), to contruct, develop, establish, operate and maintain an airport and an adjacent airport city in Bulacan, on the northwest shore of Manila Bay. The bill, HB 9191, cites evidence of negative environmental impacts including loss and reclamation of land, alteration of river and drainage pathways, removal of flora and fauna and air pollution from construction and operations. Four major geohazards were identified: earthquakes, tidal and fluvial flooding, storm surge and subsidence. The bill states that the Environmental Impact Statment (EIS) that was the basis for approval of an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) issued to SMC’s contractor, Silvertides, has been concealed from the public and affected fisherfolk. Silvertides’ February 2019 announcement that 2,375 hectares of fishponds would be impacted by back-fill (the first stages of a land reclamation process) requiring 205 million cubic metres of fill materials, is an indication of the potential scale of the loss of fishing grounds and disruption of coastal ecosystems.
HB 9191 cites evidence from Pamalakaya, the national federation supporting the rights of small fisherfolk, stating that the aerotropolis project and the law granting the franchise are ‘undemocratic’ due to a lack of consultation, intimidation and militarization faced by about 700 affected fisherfolk families. Their concerns over displacement for the aerotropolis include food insecurity, livelihood and economic losses, loss of housing and privatization of communal areas. In April 2018 an attempt to submit a petition opposing the project and hold a peaceful protest was violently dispersed by local police. In June 2020 some affected residents were pressurized to demolish their own homes. When legislative measures were filed at the House of Representatives affected fisherfolk were not given opportunites to express their opinions about or opposition to the project. Passage of the bill is sought in order to ‘uphold the democratic rights of marginalized sectors particularly for the small fisherfolk sector; for the genuine rehabilitation of Manila Bay and preservation and conservation of the marine and fisheries resources’.
News website Rappler and Oceana Philippines, an organisation working to protect the oceans, hosted an informative webinar about the threats posed to the people and environment of Manila Bay by the proposed Bulacan Airport, an aerotropolis.
Land reclamation for the Bulacan airport site, creating new land from the ocean, a process also referred to as dump and fill, would destroy fishing grounds. An astonishing 205 million cubic metres of fill material is required, a volume large enough to fill 20 million dump trucks, and it is not even known where this material would be sourced from. Fisherfolk face displacement and loss of their livelihoods and the food security of the region is at risk. Loss of biodiverse ecosystems including wetlands and mangroves threaten to devastate marine life and habitats that support many wild bird species. Local communities’ vulnerability to geohazards – typhoons, storm surges, earthquakes and rising sea levels caused by climate change – would be severely exacerbated.
A strong legal framework, constitutional provisions and national laws, protecting Manila Bay and the rights of subsistence fishing communties, and prohibiting ecologically devastating projects such as Bulacan Airport, already exists. Government agencies need to adhere to their mandates to protect coastal communities and natural life-support systems.
Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Vice President of Oceana Philippines
Narod Eco, researcher at Marine Science Institute-University of the Philippines-Diliman
Francis Cortez, a spokesperson of Bulacan Ecumenical Forum
A proliferation of new airport projects in the Maldives is destroying unique coastal ecosystems and threatens devastating impacts on communities and livelihoods. As many as 20 new airports, several accompanied by hotel developments, are planned and under construction, and many projects are government funded.
In October 2017 a dredger, newly acquired by Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) and at 92 metres in length the largest in its dredging fleet, began land reclamation for a new airport on Kulhudhuffushi, an island in the north of the Maldives. By early January 2018 land reclamation for the new airport was complete. Sediment dredged up from the ocean bed had been dumped on the largest white clay wetland and mangrove in the Maldives and destroyed a unique ecosystem. The Kulhudhuffushi mangrove system was the most biodiverse in the Maldives, hosting eight IUCN Red List species. Kulhudhuffushi mangroves had also provided a livelihood for over 400 people, predominantly women, and their families, who soaked coconut husks in the mangrove mud as part of a coir rope making industry sustained over many generations.
The impacts of construction of Kulhudhufushi and two other new airports in the Maldives – on Funadhoo and Maafaru islands – are documented in an excellent booklet, Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives published by SaveMaldives a civic movement that has emerged in response to a government drive for new airports and tourism resorts. After destroying mangroves to make way for Kulhudhuffushi Airport MTCC was then awarded the contract to build facility’s 1.2 kilometre runway. Then MTCC’s new dredger moved southwards to Funadhoo island where it was deployed to reclaim land from the north west lagoon for another new airport. Upon completion of this operation MTCC was contracted to build Funadhoo Airport runway, apron and taxiway. Funadhoo is an environmentally sensitive area, sharing a reef with its twin island, Farukolhu, that includes extensive mangroves. Dredging and reclamation proceeded near to Farukolhu’s nesting grounds supporting several bird species and a bay that serves as a marine breeding site for sharks and rays.
Construction of Maafaru Airport is nearing completion and test flights are imminent. Lush vegetation has already been decimated. Ecosytems highlighted as at risk in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and now irreversibly removed, include 20,000 trees, mangroves, marshland, coral colonies and seagrass beds. The EIA flagged up the necessity of relocating mangroves but there is no evidence that any such mitigative measure has been implemented. Maafaru Airport is larger than Kulhudhufushi and Funadhoo airports. Its 2.2 kilometre runway is long enough to accommodate Boeing 737 planes with a regular terminal along with facilities for parking private jets and a hotel. Maafaru Airport is part of a US$60 million agreement with the Abu Dhabi Fund to develop ultra-luxurious tourism in Noonu atoll.
The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report draws attention to various aspects of regulatory failure which have allaowed airport projects without the obligatory safeguards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to act as an independent authority but has been stripped of its powers to regulate tourism-related projects, effectively becoming a ‘rubber stamp’ legitimizing destructive infrastructure projects. A key EPA task is to assess, approve and monitor compliance with EIAs, but new airports and tourism projects resulting in irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems have been approved. New airports already under construction in Kulhudhuffushi, Funadhoo, Maafuru are just the beginning of an ecocidal aviation expansion frenzy. The Maldives government is planning a total of 20 new airports across the archipelago. Land reclamation also looms for a proliferation of new tourism resorts. The aviation and tourism drive expansion drive is obliterating white sand beaches and pristine coastal ecosystems, the very assets that are key to the the popularity of the Maldives as a tourist destination.
New airport threatens to swallow up Fainu island
The concept drawing for a new airport on Fainu island shows the airport taking up about two-thirds of the island land area with the runway extending along the entire southern coastline. The Maldives Independent calculated that 31 hectares of vegetation would be lost, including a dense jungle area and agricultural land. The airport plan also includes about 4 hectares of land reclamation. Land earmarked for a gated hotel is shown on the map below as an area adjacent to the airport and shaded in purple.
A woman speaking anonymously to the Maldives Independent said that rumours of an airport on Fainu island had circulated since she was a child, but all of a sudden the airport agreement was signed, funding allocated and work about to commence, yet even the island council did not have information. Another woman said “If they take our land for all of that, we will be boxed into the paopulated ares of the island like an open jail”. Residents also stand to lose access to 2.18 kilometers of beautiful beach to the airport security zone and hotel. Additional developments, namely a medical facility, hangar, lounges and restaurants have been mentioned. Islanders opposing the airport are concerned that even more land might be taken for a second hotel.
Residents acted quickly to form a campaign opposing the airport, SaveFainu and a petition submitted to the Tourism Ministry, Universal Enterprises and Island Aviation was signed by 140 people, about half of the population of Fainu island. Universal Enterprises, one of the largest hospitality companies in the Maldives, is financing Fainu Airport through bulk purchase of advance sales of air tickets. Island Aviation, owner and operator of Maldivian, the largest carrier in the Maldives, has been awarded the US$8 million contract to develop the airport. The SaveFainu petition called for more transparency from the Tourism Ministry, proper consultation with islanders and an independent EIA.
Mohamed Waheed, a leading activist in the SaveFainu campaign said some residents did not sign the petition for fear of losing their jobs, but are worried that such a large amount of the island would be lost to the airport and the secrecy and lack of transparency regarding the project. People are worried that loss of farmland to the airport would mean the loss of farming livelihoods. Waheed said job opportunities at the airport would not match the incomes made by people working on farms and pointed out that a comparable airport on Kudahuvadhoo island only employs 29 people.
More land reclamation, more new airports
Land reclamation has already created space for a new airport on Muli island. On 11th July 2018 President Yameen pledged to develop an airport on Muli island and attended a ceremony marking completion of the land reclamation project. MTCC has been paving the way for an airport on Muli island for some time. A land reclamation agreement was signed in 2014 and reclamation of 40 hectares of land was reported as completed in May 2017. An aerial photo shows an ideal site for an airport runway already in place, a strip of reclaimed land running along almost the entire eastern shoreline of Muli island, encompassing the southern tip and extending along about a third of the western coast.
MTCC has also been contracted to reclaim land for a new airport in Hoarafushi in Haa Alif Atoll, the northernmost atoll in the Maldives. The project, anticipated to cost over US$4 million, will be funded by the state budget. MTCC has already started development of an airport on Maavarulu island, a project costing US$ 3.7 million funded by the state budget, with tarring of the 1,200 metre runway scheduled to commence by the end of July. Maarvarulu is an island on Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, where a second new airport is to be built, on Faresmaathoda, an uninhabited island situated on the south of the atoll. Tourism developer ‘Champa’ Mohamed Moosa, gave a US$4 million loan to the government to develop the airport and a press conference at the beginning of June marked the signing of a US$2.5 million contract with Gulf Cobla, a UAE based dredging company, to begin land reclamation for the project.
Mohamed Moosa is chair of Kuredu Holdings, a major resort operator which has been awarded a contract to develop another new airport, on Madivaru island, in the tourism hotspot of Lhaviyani atoll, which will entail reclaiming three hectares of land from Madivaru lagoon. Kuredu Holdings is expected to develop a hotel to support Madivaru airport operations. More land reclamation, and yet another new airport, looms in Bileyfahi, where President Abdulla Yameen pledged to reclaim land and build a domestic airport, explaining that this additional facility, together with the new Funadhoo Airport, which is located just 40 kilometres away, will make Shaviyani atoll a tourism hub.
The necessity of the new airports, many of which are generously funded by the government, is highly questionable. The Maldives already has 12 airports and all three new airports in the #SaveMaldives report are being constructed even though an existing airport is easily accessible by speedboat, a journey of 45 minutes in the case of Funadhoo Airport, 40 minutes on the case of Maafuru and just 25 minutes away from Kulhudhuffushi Airport. In a similar vein, SaveFainu campaigners regard an airport on Fainu island to be unnecessary as an existing airport in Raa atoll, 26 kilometers away on Ifuru island, can be reached by speedboat in just 25 minutes.
Climate impacts from aviation expansion, land reclamation and loss of mangroves
The Maldives government continues its drive to build new airport projects even though the country is on the front line of the battle against climate change. Rising seas are lapping at the shores of many low-lying islands. The Irreversible Damage, Destruction & Loss #SaveMaldives report points out the inconsistency of the Maldives government on the international stage when in November 2017, Environment Minister, Thoriq Ibrahim, traveled to advocate for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) at the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). A key issue for small islands is their vulnerability to rising seas caused by climate change. Yet the government driven and funded aviation expansion drive is a climate double whammy; with aviation expansion increasing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and land reclamation increasing vulnerability to climate change induced flooding from rising sea levels, severe storm surges and more intense rainfall due to removal of vegetation which serve as a buffer absorbing excess water.
Destruction of mangroves for new airports compounds the climate impacts, because these unique ecosystems play a unique role in carbon sequestration, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing in their biomass for long periods and laying down soil that acts as a carbon sink. The Maldives government pursues environmentally devastating airport projects in the face of widespread opposition from civil society, even though it is a recipient of large amounts of donor funds for climate change mitigation and resilience. International organizations and development partners such as UNDP Maldives have remained silent.
Approval of plans for Bulacan Aerotropolis in Manila Bay, one of the biggest megaprojects in the Philippines, threatens 700 families with displacement and loss of their fishing livelihoods. Thousands more fisherfolk would be affected by land reclamation for the 2,500 hectare airport and ‘airport city’ complex.
On 25th April the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) of the Philippines approved plans for a new airport and metropolis, i.e. an aerotropolis, in Bulacan province, Manila Bay. Residents of the village of Taliptip and seven other areas will be affected by the project and at least 700 families face displacement. They make their living from selling their fishing catch in a nearby town and from making fishing nets. Their income is low but life is good and they do not want to leave. A woman who has lived in Taliptip for 43 years is worried for the future of her children and grandchildren. They were not informed about the airport plans and have been told they will be relocated, but not where, or how they might make an alternative livelihood.
Local communities resisting loss of their homes and incomes for the airport project are being supported by environmental and church groups and people can follow the local people’s struggle on the Save Taliptip Facebook page. Leon Dulce, national coordinator of the Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, writes that the Bulacan aerotropolis plan is being pursued aggressively and was kept hidden from Taliptip residents until news broke of President Duterte’s approval of the project. The seas surrounding Taliptip support the livelihoods of about 5,000 fisherfolk and salt-makers, who face being displaced for the project.
Living in hardship has made Taliptip’s people resourceful, they live off the grid using solar power and batteries for their modest electricity needs. The fishing catch has dwindled but they are determined to remain in their homes maintain their established communities. A fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community in the midst of the mangroves along the shoreline said: “So long as the sea is here, there is hope … What will we fish if all this were turned into cement?” Fisherfolk take care of mangroves, a vital habitat for many bird species including egrets, terns, kingfishers and swallows, along with shellfish living among its roots. At the beginning of May there was a ‘massive mangrove cutting spree’ in Taliptap, reportedly undertaken by SMC, possibly without the required environmental clearance and thought to be connected with Bulacan aerotropolis. On 12th May Pinoy Weekly posted a photo of Taliptip mangroves that had been cut.
LOOK: Several trees of api-api, a species of mangrove, were cut in Brgy. Taliptip Bulakan, Bulacan. San Miguel Corp. was recently awarded by DENR an original proponent status to build a P700-B aerotropolis in Brgy. Taliptip. pic.twitter.com/aWfjsemSvi
National fisherfolk alliance Pamalakaya also opposes the new airport. Chairperson Fernanado Hicap said the project will cause environmental disaster in Manila Bay; destruction of marine ecosystems would threaten the livelihoods of more than 20,000 fisherfolk in Bulacan and neighbouring towns. Hicap also lambasted the broader Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure development programme that the new airport is part of, for selling coastal waters and public lands to large developers and foreign investors. Constructing an airport in Manila Bay would require extensive land reclamation works, creating new land from the sea and wreaking destruction on fishing grounds.
Developers and governments often opt for land reclamation, as an alternative to building on farmland and obviating the loss of productive agricultural land and displacement of rural communities. But dredging up vast volumes of sediment from the ocean bed exacts a terrible ecological toll; ecosystems including mangroves, coral reefs and coastal flats are eradicated when sediment is dumped on top them. The new airport is just one of five land reclamation projects Duterte’s administration has approved in Manila Bay, described by Hicap as disregarding the “socio-economic rights of hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk and coastal settlers”. Land reclamation for the Bulacan airport project is likely to impact not just on the town of Balakan but on the neighbouring towns of Hagonoy and Paombong and the city of Malolos.
A mega-airport and a new metropolis
A mega-airport is planned, with six parallel runways and initial capacity for 100 million passengers annually, more than double the passenger throughput at the existing main Manila airport, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the busiest in the Philippines. With a budget of P735.63 billion (US$14.2 billion) the new airport in Bulacan is the country’s most expensive transport project to date, by far the most costly of eight infrastructure projects approved as part of the Build, Build, Build (BBB) programme on 25th April by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board, chaired by President Rodrigo Duterte.
San Miguel Corp (SMC), the Philippines’ biggest company by revenue – a conglomerate with interests spanning infrastructure, real estate, mining, petroleum, power and food & beverages – is set to build, operate and maintain Bulacan airport and aerotropolis. The plan spans 2,500 hectares, comprising 1,168 hectares allocated for the airport and 1,332 hectares for an adjoining ‘airport city’. The video below includes a graphic showing the basic layout.
SMC’s unsolicited proposal to build Bulacan Airport, revealed after scrutiny by the Department of Transportation in November 2017, featured additional SMC projects, in the form of the obligatory surface transportation network that is inherent to the aerotropolis development model. An SMC-built expressway linking the airport to the North Luzon Expressway is planned, which would in turn link to SMC-backed Metro Rail Transit Line-7. By the time NEDA approved the Bulacan airport proposal in April 2018 the expressway project specified a revenue stream for SMC, an 8.4 kilometre airport toll road. NEDA gave SMC’s proposal for Bulacan airport the green light in spite of Department of Finance concerns that the project is to be implemented by SMC subsidiary San Miguel Holdings Corp, whose capitalization is smaller than the airport project.
Clark Airport – another aerotropolis, another new metropolis
Some potential Bulacan Airport investors were cautious about the project because expansion of Clark Airport could serve similar markets. NEDA has approved US$241 million expansion of Clark Airport as another priority under Build, Build, Build. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez highlighted Clark Airport growth at an Asian Development Bank briefing saying “Clark will will soon be the showcase of the Duterte administration’s economic strategy”. In December 2017 the government awarded the GMR-Megawide consortium the construction contract for trebling Clark Airport’s capacity from current 4 million passengers annually to 12 million by 2020. President and CEO of Clark Airport, Alexander Cauguiran, has stated larger-scale expansion plans, for increasing capacity to 80 million passengers annually upon completion of a fourth phase of development.
A former US military base which is already an economic hub, Clark Airport is also being developed as an aerotropolis, encompassed within a wider area already primed with surface transportation infrastructure and lavish incentives for investors. Clark Airport is part of Clark Freeport, a 4,400 hectare tax and duty incentivized area. Further development of Clark Freeport is prioritized in NEDA supported infrastructure projects; the US$957 million Subic-Clark railway, connecting to the Philippines other freeport zone, has been approved. Clark Freeport adjoins a larger area, the 27,600 hectare Clark Special Economic Zone, where firms can avail themselves of a generous suite of tax breaks including income tax and corporate income tax holidays of up to eight years and exemptions from local government taxes.
In April 2015, as the government infused P1.2 billion (US$27 million) for a low cost passenger terminal, it was reported that the government was ‘pouring investments into Clark aerotropolis’ development’. Nearly three years later, in March 2018, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) pitched Clark Airport to global investors as an ‘airport city’ and ‘growth center’. BCDA senior vice president John Bingcang said “Clark is on its way to becoming Asia’s next aerotropolis with the development not only of the airport, but the Clark Freeport as well” and invited investment in construction of a US$67 million access road to another airport city component, the “smart, green, and resilient” New Clark City. At completion covering an area of 93 square kilometres, planners envisage that New Clark City will be larger than Manhattan, housing 2 million people. Claims that the new metropolis will be sustainable, reduce carbon emissions and ‘pollution-free’, are undermined by aviation dependence. New Clark City is regarded by BCDA as complementing expansion of the airport.
Land disputes and displacement
Development of Clark Airport within Clark Freeport, in the 2,367 hectare Clark Civil Aviation Complex (CCAC), has triggered land disputes. In July 2016 117 farmers cultivating about 200 hectares of CCAC land appealed to President Duterte, drawing attention to their request to Clark International Airport Corporation (CIAC) to grant them ‘Disturbance Compensation‘. The president of a farmers’ cooperative said construction of factories and an industrial complex had begun without prior consultation. Farmers protested at the construction site, stating that they were willing to surrender farmlands but demanding just compensation plus reimbursement for loss of farm buildings and crops. Almost a year later, in June 2017, cultivation of grains, vegetables and spices in the CCAC appeared to be attracting birds. A Commission on Audit (COA) report blamed farming activities of people it referred to as ‘illegal settlers’ on 647 hectares of land for an increase in bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can pose a safety risk.
GMR-Megawide is keen on bidding for the operation and management contract of Clark Airport, and already operates Mactan-Cebu Airport, the second busiest in the Philippines. A second terminal is scheduled to open within a few weeks and GMR-Megawide Cebu Airport Corp (GMCAC) plans for further expansion, a third terminal and second runway that would increase airport capacity from the current level of approximately 10 million passengers per year to 28 million passengers by 2039. The project entails reclaiming 300 hectares of Magellan Bay. This option, chosen in a proposal supported by some Cebu congressmen, was seen as preferable to expanding over land as that would have impacts upon between 10,000 and 12,000 households.
SMC, through its subsidiary Trans Aire Development Holdings Corp (TADHC) holds the concession to operate Boracay Airport, the main gateway to the Philippines’ most well-known tourist island. On 16th September 2015 residents facing land expropriation for expansion of the airport protested against plans to purchase their land at a fraction of its market value. The president of Caticlan Land Owners Association said the market rate for real estate in the area was between five and ten times higher per square metre than residents were being offered. Yet some residents had already received court orders instructing them to vacate their homes. Demonstrators gathered outside the airport terminal with placards reading: ‘No To Expansion Caticlan/Boracay Airport’, ‘Stop Harrassment’, ‘Airport Expansion is Killing us’, ‘Expropriation is Oppression’, ‘No to Expropriation, Yes to Fair Negotiation’, ‘CAAP / San Miguel Have Mercy ON US’ and ‘Government for the People, Not Government for San Miguel Corp’. About 200 families were affected by expansion of the airport and in November 2015 the Commission in Human Rights (CHR) in Western Visayas took cognizance of the complaints raised by landowners.
Some residents had no choice but to accept the low compensation offer. By April 2016 a number of families had been evicted to make way for airport expansion and become squatters. Local residents asked TADHC and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) for clarification of the scope of Boracay Airport expansion plans, estimated to affect about 8,000 people. By October 2017 SMC was building a new terminal at Boracay Airport and, separate from airport development, expanding the footprint of its tourism related development on 130 hectares of land. Groundbreaking for a 400 room Marriott Hotel was imminent and plans included more hotels, an entertainment complex and an ocean park.
A major aerotropolis has been approved in Bulacan, Manila Bay, the Philippines. The project area spans 2,500 hectares with the airport covering 1,168 hectares and an adjoining airport city. Land reclamation would destroy marine ecosystems and the megaproject threatens the livelihoods of more than 20,000 fisherfolk. Pamalakaya, the national progressive fisherfolk group, vows to oppose the aerotropolis and other infrastructure projects under President Duterte’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) program.
Fisherfolk says no to Bulacan international airport
Proposed airport in Bulacan | Photo by San Miguel Corp.
Manila, Philippines – The national fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA-Pilipinas) opposes the international airport project in Bulacan that has been approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).
With NEDA’s approval, Ramong Ang’s San Miguel Corporation (SMC) is set to build, operate, and maintain the P700-billion international “aerotropolis” which involves an airport covering 1,168 hectares and a city complex to be built at a 2,500-hectare area along Manila Bay in Bulacan, Bulacan.
For its part, PAMALAKAYA Chairperson and former Anakpawis Partylist solon Fernando Hicap said the project will lead to environmental disaster in Manila Bay threatening the livelihood of more than 20,000 fisherfolk in the municipality of Bulacan, Bulacan and other neighboring towns.
“This project will not only destroy marine ecosystem, but also the livelihood of…
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.