Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Aviation expansion is a land rights issue

Talk of land rights brings to mind the issue of communities being displaced for many kinds of development - mines, dams, oil pipelines, manufacturing plants, multi-lane highways, mega tourism resorts, and plantations. Aviation is also a land rights issue. Airports require large, preferably ‘greenfield’ sites i.e. undeveloped land. But this land will inevitably, if sparsely, populated. Often it will be farmland, so rural communities are threatened with displacement. Too often a new airport, or expansion of an existing airport, brings the threat of a land grab - dispossession, no democratic process, landholders evicted by armed police and farms and homes destroyed by excavators and bulldozers. Below are some examples:

Resistance by farming communities against a new Mexico City airport dates back to 2001. Here is an excellent video in English from the wonderful Telesur news network, giving some background to the long struggle against the airport and an outline of recent developments.

The 2001 airport plan, which would have displaced over 56,000 people living in San Salvador, Atenco, was announced, then defeated after none months of struggle. The government took vengeful action against the community in May 2006, conducting a brutal military police raid. Two young men were killed and 26 women raped. Nine farmers’ leaders were imprisoned but an international campaign for their liberation was successful. Their illegal sentences were quashed and they were freed after being incarcerated for four years and 59 days. The raid was ordered by Enrique Peña Nieto. At the time he was the governor of the State of Mexico. He is now the country’s president and is championing revival of the airport project, even bigger than before, a fully-fledged megaproject with 6 runways, which was announced in September 2014.

Here is a good article from Upside Down World on the history of the Mexico City airport project and what is now at stake. The actual airport would be on land that was acquired by the government, ostensibly for an ecological project, and villagers are concerned that the associated commercial development and road network would seriously impact on their lives. There is more information in English, regularly updated, on the Dorset Chiapas Solidarity blog.

This video, from Laos, shows a rare act of citizens’ defiance in a country with a dismal human rights record. Dissenters are dealt with harshly by the oppressive regime,  including people resisting land acquisition for development projects. In January 2014 farmers in the Tonpheung district of the northern Bokeo province refuse to vacate their rice fields for an airport.  The land has been given to a Chinese firm to build a ‘casino driven special economic zone’ with tax exempt status. which would form part of a casino oriented tax-free economic zone. About 50 people stood in front of bulldozers and refused to move out of the way when confronted with officials and police armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The police retreated and farmers kept up their resistance, taking turn to guard their plots of land around the clock. As of 22nd January it was reported that protests had stopped and the farmers had agreed to meet with officials. Tensions flared up again three months later and the farmers prevented the developer from undertaking survey work. They said that their rice fields were three times more valuable than the amount offered in compensation, which was insufficient for them purchase sufficient new farmland to meet their needs. Some villagers said that they were threatened with imprisonment if they would not accept the compensation package. 

Even seemingly minor airport boundary extensions can impact on hundreds of people in neighbouring communities. Here, from Cambodia: The Eviction of the Airport Community, is a short documentary consisting of interviews with residents living next to Phnom Penh Airport, about their ongoing dispute as they face the threat of eviction for a redevelopment project extending 10 metres outside the current airport boundary.  Residents of five villages, 300 families, insist that they are not, as the government claims, squatters or illegal settlers, maintaining that they purchased the land legally. Legal experts agree that the airport’s eviction plan is a violation of their housing rights. Nevertheless, they were handed eviction notices in 2012, but were offered no compensation. The villagers have been offered a new location without a water or electricity supply electricity and with no access to facilities such as a school and a market. The video includes a short segment of footage of the sort of violent eviction that is feared, as has happened at Boeung Kak, Borei Keila and Dey Krahom. In February 2014 the residents agreed to let the IFC Ombudsman to help resolve the dispute and hopefully mediate a solution with the airport operator and the government.

On 25th September 2014 there was a news report of a protest against construction of an airport in the Kulon Progo district of Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island. Villagers blocked 1.5 kilometres of road to Java. At the time of writing this YouTube video had only recorded 31 views. The newsreader states calmly that villagers believe that the airport project threatens their livelihoods, and some were excluded from the land acquisition process. But the video clearly shows people in distress, resorting to blocking the road with stones and their bodies. The newsreader states that ‘police, military and public order officials were mobilised to secure the location’ arrive to clear. As soon as said officials come into shot the video clip ends. It leaves you wondering what the hell happened next, what exactly was done to these people to ‘secure the location’. The Indonesian government is notorious for land grabbing and police brutality towards people resisting it.

Two weeks later there was a press report of 500 farmers, mostly women, from four subdistricts protesting against the new airport. They do not want to sell fertile coastal land where they make a good livelihood growing vegetables, fruits and other crops. The farmers’ spokesperson, Martono, said: ‘We don’t want to move. We want to farm, live and die there’. Protesters had been blocked from attending an information meeting about the project. The official who met with the protesters said that, in spite of their opposition, the administration would continue with plans for the airport.

An industry report, by CAPA (Centre for Aviation), a leading aviation consultancy, states that Kulon Progo airport will impact on approximately 2,800 households, and that it will be pursued in spite of resistance: ‘project will proceed as planned despite facing a backlash from Kulon Progo and Glagah residents, according to Yogyakarta governor’. Land acquisition ‘problems’ are first noted in March 2014, and yet it is ‘accelerating’ in spite of this. Claims of a ‘socialisation’ process sound sanitised, far from reassuring.

An interesting, alarming, detail in the CAPA report is that the new Yogyakarta airport requires 68 square kilometres of land. This is far more than could be necessary for airport operations. For example, Heathrow is the third busiest passenger airport in the world and the site is just over 12 square kilometres. It appears that the planned new Yogyakarta airport is if fact an ‘aerotropolis’, an airport surrounded by commercial development - such as shops, hotels, conference and exhibition facilities, business premises. This of course entails appropriation of larger areas of land than traditional airports built solely to serve established settlements. Here is information about a couple of examples of ongoing land disputes for aerotropolis projects - Taoyuan in Taiwan and Andal in India.

On the northern tip of Taiwan, the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project threatens the biggest land expropriation in the country’s history. Over 3,700 hectares, predominantly farmland, have been earmarked for the development. 15,000 households, a total of 46,000 people, could face forced eviction for the 'Aerotropolis' megaproject. Since I wrote the previous blogpost, about the series of demonstrations against the project, I came across video of an extraordinary ‘paper plane protest’ against; 2 minutes 45 seconds in demonstrators throw paper planes covered in blood-like red paint at the police. Evictions for Taoyuan were scheduled to begin this year. But sustained protest, and sweeping changes following recent local government elections, have at least put spanners in the works. Taoyuan’s new mayor has ordered a probe into alleged corruption – specifically misuse of public funds and illegally favouring particular groups – but he maintains a stance of firm commitment to the overall project.

This is a video of farmers obstructing construction work on Andal Aerotropolis, in November 2013. I don’t understand the language, Bengali, but the farmers’ distress is evident as they block a road and obstruct bulldozers. Officials are brandishing batons and some police have guns. This report from Sanhati, Andal Aerotropolis: A Fact-Finding Report, is based on a 2009 investigation into the effects on farmers facing land compulsory land acquisition, and, even more importantly, agricultural labours who do not own any land and therefore are not entitled to any compensation. In March 2010 protests escalated into violence when farm labourers and sharecroppers demonstrated outside the project camps, demanding compensation and a halt to the project. Project administrators were unresponsive and protesters began vandalising the camps and police responded with a baton charge, storming into villages and indiscriminately arresting people. Protest continue. In December 2014 landholders who had given land to the project brought work on overhead cables to a halt, demanding more compensation as extra land had been taken to build the transmission towers.

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