PP Post: Toll Group alleged to be leaving rail project

By Tom Brennan, Mar. 14 2012, Phnom Penh Post

Australian logistics company Toll Group is allegedly pulling out of its 30-year concession to operate the Kingdom’s national railway, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Citing “reliable sources”, an SMH report said Toll would leave its US$145 million Toll Royal Railway joint venture with Cambodia’s Royal Group of Companies. No reason was given for the decision, and a Toll Group spokesman declined to comment for the article.

The Post last month contacted a number of the partners involved in the project amid speculation that Toll Group was frustrated with the pace of the rail’s redevelopment and had decided to leave Cambodia. Officials denied any such claims.

Royal Group’s Kith Meng rejected the allegations when reached by phone in late February, and he declined to comment when asked again yesterday about the project.

Toll Royal CEO David Kerr last month also denied the claims. “Definitely not true. Toll pulling out has not been discussed.”

A Cambodian government spokesman in February said he had no knowledge of Toll’s alleged plans to pull out, and reiterated those claims yesterday.

A Toll spokesman in Melbourne repeatedly denied having knowledge of the matter, although a separate official based in Singapore said the company was working on a statement in conjunction with the Cambodian government as to the status of the project.

Toll Royal officials yesterday again declined to comment, saying a statement from the parent company was expected later this week or next week.

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PP Post: Rail project families at risk: NGO

A girl cycles past shacks at a Dangkor relocation site. (Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post)

An NGO has criticised a controversial railway rehabilitation project – funded primarily by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID – in a report that states the US$143 million project has left families at risk of impoverishment by failing to adequately compensate and resettle them.

In the report obtained by the Post, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia says a perception among many families interviewed that they had been, or would be, worse off because of the project was “unsurprising”.

“The lack of meaningful consultat-ion, including the provision of genuine choices from the beginning, has meant the resettlement process has been fraught with problems for many households,” the report says.

More than 4,000 families living alongside the railway could be affec-ted by the project, and at least 1,200 families will have to relocate.

BABC executive director David Pred said that although there had been recent improvements, including a partial refund of electricity fees for resettled families in Phnom Penh and allocation of plots to people previously denied them, problems with the resettlement process remained.

“The most serious systemic problem of inadequate compensation and loss of income leading families into debt has not been addressed, and it poses the greatest risk of impoverishing affected people,” Pred said.

More than a third of the households interviewed felt they had been “intimidated or coerced, mainly by local authorities”, and NGOs monitoring the project had come under “significant pressure”, he said.

The report says the resettlement experience “was not uniform”. Fewer than 40 per cent of the more than 200 households interviewed between September, 2010 and October last year reported that living standards had improved or had not worsened, and development partners had made efforts to improve resettlement.

However, there was a “systematic downgrading” of compensation for affected families, the report says. It states that for some, the five resettlement sites were too far from their original homes and none were adequately equipped when families relocated, with access to water and electricity costs of particular concern.

“A considerable number of affected households have suffered harm and a deterioration of their living conditions due to non-compliance with the ADB Policy on Involuntary Resettlement,” the report says.

It urges the government to halt resettlement until international rights obligations and ADB policies are adhered to, review compensation and ensure basic services at resettlement sites.

Officials from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport were not available for comment yesterday. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached, while Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that he was “not aware” of what was occurring with the resettlement.

Long Vanny, 53, who moved from Tuol Sangke village in Russei Keo district to Trapaing Anhchanh village in Dangkor district, is about US$1,000 in debt from building a house and opening a grocery shop.

“I hope this relocation and my business will help support my living better, although I owe money,” she said. She has received a larger plot of land with water, electricity and toilets and more than $900, but is far from schools and health centres.

The ADB said safeguard policies had not always been “uniformly implemented”. “All families affected by the resettlement process will be as well off, and in many cases much better off, than they were before.”

Relocated households would receive land titles after five years and electricity, water supply and basic facilities were being implemented, it said.

An Australian embassy spokesperson said improvements had been made at resettlement sites, compensation and grievances processes.

BABC: Rehabilitation of the Cambodian Railway is Impoverishing Affected Families

PRESS RELEASE

Rehabilitation of the Cambodian Railway is Impoverishing Affected Families

February 13, 2012

A problematic aid project in Cambodia has violated the rights of affected people and left many families mired in debt and deeper poverty, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) said in a report released Monday.

The report, DERAILED, reviews the resettlement process and impacts of the Rehabilitation of the Cambodian Railway Project, which aims to restore the country’s 650 kilometres of railway infrastructure.

The project, financed mainly by development assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Government of Australia, stands to affect around 4164 families who live alongside the dilapidated railway tracks. At least 1200 families are required to relocate in order to make way for the project. A joint venture of the Australian firm Toll Holdings and the Cambodian firm Royal Group secured a 30-year concession to operate the refurbished railways.

BABC has closely monitored the resettlement process since early 2010 and interviewed more than 200 affected households to ascertain the extent to which the Railway Rehabilitation Project has complied with the ADB safeguard policy and international law obligations.

“Our principal finding is that the resettlement process for this project has fallen well short of ADB’s policy requirements and basic human rights obligations,” said BABC Executive Director David Pred.

“These requirements are critical to ensuring that the rights of people who are displaced by development projects are upheld throughout the resettlement process and that their lives are not made worse off as a result,” he added.

The report found that meaningful consultation with affected households on resettlement options and information disclosure on compensation entitlements was precluded by an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion. The result is that many families have been forced to accept very low compensation, which has led to deterioration in their living conditions.

Some families have been left unable to reconstruct adequate housing that meets minimum standards under international law, which amounts to a serious violation of human rights.

None of the five Project-sponsored resettlement sites were fully prepared with basic services and facilities when resettlement commenced, causing considerable hardship to resettled families. Lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water has been a particular concern.

Resettlement sites are located far away from people’s original homes and places of business, with minimal opportunities to generate new income. Despite the known risk of income reduction or joblessness upon resettlement, effective income restoration programs have not been implemented many months after resettlement.

The cumulative effect of inadequate compensation, increased expenses and reduced incomes on households has led the majority of the resettled families that BABC interviewed into unmanageable debt to private moneylenders, a common trigger for a downward spiral into destitution.

“It is unacceptable for the poorest citizens to be asked to pay the price of economic development, but it is scandalous that these costs should be borne by the poor for a project financed largely by international development agencies whose missions are to alleviate poverty,” said David Pred.

“Cambodian people appreciate international development assistance, but we want to see this aid prioritizing the poorest and most vulnerable people in society,” said BABC Program Manager Eang Vuthy.

“However, we have observed through our work with communities affected by the Railways project that their living conditions have gotten worse and worse since they have been resettled,” he added.

The risks of resettlement are well-known, but they can be prevented through smart planning backed up by sufficient resources and the implementation of safeguard policies, which are designed to protect people from the precise harms they are experiencing as a result of this project. When resettlement cannot be avoided for infrastructure projects such as this, it should be turned into a development opportunity for affected people.

“Far from shouldering the costs of the project, the families who are forced to give up their land, homes and communities should be entitled to share the benefits of the project so that their lives may be improved,” said David Pred.

“The ADB and AusAID must take urgent appropriate action, together with the Royal Government of Cambodia, to remedy the situation and bring this project into compliance with international law and ADB policies. Toll Holdings and Royal Group should also contribute a share of the revenues from freight operations to programs that directly benefit the affected people,” he said.

“We would like to see the private companies benefiting from this public investment give something back to the people who have given up so much to make this project possible,” said Eang Vuthy.

“That is not just corporate social responsibility, it is common decency,” he added.

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Additional Information

The report is available at the following link: http://www.babcambodia.org/derailed
An accompanying video is also available at: http://www.babcambodia.org/railways

Hard copies of the report are available at BABC’s offices in Phnom Penh, located at: #55 Street 101, Boeung Trabek, Phnom Penh, CambodiaThe report will also be presented at the event “Aid and Accountability: Safeguarding Rights in High-Risk Development Projects” at Monash University Law Chambers, 555 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Australia at 12:30pm on February 13th.

For more information, please contact:

David Pred, Executive Director
Email: david@babcambodia.org
Tel. in Australia: (+61) 487443807

Eang Vuthy, Development Watch Program Manager
Email: vuthy@babcambodia.org
Tel. in Australia: (+61) 418146603

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Bridges Across Borders Cambodia is an international non-governmental organization working to support people’s action for social justice, inclusive development and human rights in Cambodia.

DPA: Asian Development Bank denies requesting action against NGOs

Sep. 19, 2011, Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Phnom Penh – The Asian Development Bank on Monday dismissed accusations that one of its consultants asked Phnom Penh to act against groups monitoring one of its infrastructure development projects.

An internal investigation found ‘no evidence’ of any request for action against two rights groups that advocate for people affected by a 142-million-dollar railway rehabilitation project, ADB country head Putu Kamayana said.
His comments contradict a June 17 letter from Minister of Finance Keat Chhon to Prime Minister Hun Sen, a copy of which the German Press Agency dpa has seen.

Keat Chhon wrote that an unidentified ADB consultant had asked the government to act against the groups STT and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC).

In his letter, the minister asked Hun Sen to ‘nullify (their) eligibility.’The ADB consultant has drawn the attention of the government officials to be careful with these NGOs, and requested the government take immediate action on this group of foreign NGOs because (the) ADB is also under political pressure caused by these NGOs,’ he wrote.

Within weeks the government suspended STT for alleged paperwork violations, and warned BABC for ‘discrediting the government’ and inciting people against the government, a criminal offence. Two other groups monitoring railway resettlement were similarly cautioned.

Keat Chhon also wrote that ‘local and international consultants’ from the ADB had said the main goal of the non-governmental organizations was to cancel the railway’s construction.

Cambodia is rehabilitating its railway, which fell into neglect after years of conflict. When completed, the new railway will close the gap in the regional rail network and link Singapore to the city of Kunming in China.

The ADB’s Kamayana said the bank was aware of the allegations and had carried out a ‘thorough internal investigation.’
‘No evidence was found to substantiate alleged misconduct by any ADB consultants,’ Kamayana said by email.

However, the ADB earlier declined to provide a copy of its investigation report, saying dpa could apply for it through the bank’s formal information channels. A formal request on September 13 has so far not been answered. Kamayana said the ADB hoped the NGOs would be allowed to continue their monitoring work, which was ‘integral’ to the project’s success.

In his letter, Keat Chhon also recommended banning any advocacy work by foreign NGOs and foreigners in local NGOs.
He also said the government should rapidly pass and implement the controversial draft NGO Law. The bill has riled some donors and hundreds of civil society groups who say it will impose burdensome restrictions on NGOs, and increase the power of the government over them.

Keat Chhon’s letter carried an annotation from Hun Sen on June 19 approving its contents. Keat Chhon and staff at the finance ministry could not be reached for comment. Officials at other ministries declined to comment.

The ADB has provided 84 million dollars for the railway rehabilitation project, while the Australian government’s development arm AusAID has provided 21.5 million dollars.

STT and BABC have worked for nearly two years with villagers facing resettlement under the rehabilitation.

ADB rules say people who are resettled must not end up worse off. In a letter to the ADB last year the groups targeted by the government criticized conditions at a resettlement site where two children drowned. David Pred, BABC’s executive director, said by email that the ‘dire circumstances’ of many resettled families showed the bank’s consultants had failed in their duties. Referring to the June 17 letter, he said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ that ADB consultants appeared involved in actions against the NGOs.

The authorities have crossed swords with STT and BABC before, notably over the groups’ advocacy on behalf of villagers at the controversial Boeung Kak lake project in central Phnom Penh, which is being developed by a prominent ruling party senator. In March, the World Bank suspended lending to Cambodia after a slew of evictions at the lake saw thousands of residents displaced with what rights groups said was inadequate compensation.

Railway project in ADB’s sights

Mary Kozlovski, Phnom Penh Post, Sep. 6 2011

The Asian Development Bank said yesterday problems with a railway rehabilitation project – funded by the bank and AusAID – identified by a local NGO that was suspended by the government last month “may require further investigation or analysis”.

Last month, the government suspended the operations of local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which released a report in July that was critical of the project.

“In monitoring the implementation of resettlement under the project, STT identified issues and procedures that could be improved and, in some cases, may require further investigation or analysis,” Asian Development Bank country director Putu Kamayana said in an email yesterday.

He added that ADB reviews “have found that the living allowance set forth under the original Resettlement Plan is now insufficient due to rising food prices in recent years”.

In July, STT released a report stating that compensation for villagers in four communities in the capital affected by the project might be insufficient due to a “systematic downgrade” of the value of their homes by the government.

STT director Ee Sarom said by email yesterday that officials from the Ministry of Interior had said during meetings that the NGO’s suspension last month was “directly related” to its work with residents affected by the railway project.

The ministry had previously accused STT of “inciting villagers” to rally against the railway project with the aim of causing development partners to “suspend” it.

STT defended its work, saying it was focused on “ensuring that affected households are not harmed” and had “never called for the railways rehabilitation project to be cancelled”.

Kamayana, however, said yesterday the government had informed the bank that the suspension of STT was “unrelated” to its railway monitoring work.

Interior Ministry secretary of state Nouth Sa An and spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Rights groups have claimed that STT’s suspension offers a preview of what will happen if the government enacts a controversial law on assoc-iations and NGOs operating in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, civil society groups said in a statement yesterday that residents affected by the railway development feared the loss of NGOs working on the project amid “mounting pressure” from the government.

Housing Rights Task Force, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and STT said STT’s suspension, as well as warning letters issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry to Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and NGO Forum last month, were “likely to be detrimental to the project”.

“The affected people living along the railway tracks are increasingly scared and fear that, without the work of the NGOs monitoring the project, safeguard violations will remain unaddressed,” the statement read. The organis-ations emphasised, however, that they were “not against” the railway project.

“We support all development projects that reduce poverty and fulfil the human rights of the Cambodian people,” the release said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

Eang Vuthy, a program manager at Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, said yesterday the ADB should urge the government to retract its accusations against the organisations and remove STT’s suspension.

“ADB has to take a further step to make sure … that STT’s suspension is reversed. They have to make sure that these people, these NGOs, can carry out their work independently, without interference and without accusat-ions,” Eang Vuthy said.

“[We] are doing work to support the government to make sure the development is benefiting people.”

In an August 18 letter, Kamayana stated that he hoped NGOs would continue their work on the project and said STT had provided “important information” regarding resettlement for affected families.