Urban land grab leaves thousands in the lurch

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Prime Minister says unresolved land disputes could sow "˜seeds of socio-political instability'

A farmer works at a rice paddy field in Tay Mo Village outside Hanoi. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said unresolved land disputes could sow "˜seeds of socio-political instability'.

Pham Van Nua is a resident of District 7, the new posh urban area in Ho Chi Minh City that teems with promenades, up-market shopping and entertainment complexes, restaurants and other amenities and comforts.

The 80-year-old man, though, lives in a makeshift house with no electricity or running water.

It is the urbanization of District 7 that has reduced Nua to his current plight. Nua said his farmland had been revoked years ago for a residential area project, and his family lost their sole meal ticket. Then, the land on which his house stands was placed under a zoning plan under which a new street was to be built. The project to build the street was first announced in 1995 but has never been implemented, leaving him stuck in his own house. Nua said the compensation offered to him and other residents was meager, well below the land's market value. Furthermore, the compensation was offered without any consultations with the residents, he added.

The situation is the same for more than 30 households in the area that is surrounded by new buildings. Their only access to it is via a trail running through small swamps that are inundated during the rainy season.

Nua and his neighbors said they have complained about their situation to the authorities many times over the past few years. They are among thousands of residents nationwide who have complained to governmental agencies over land issues.

At a live teleconference on residents' complaints and denouncements on Wednesday (May 2), Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said it was an "extremely important" task to address the complaints and to resolve the issues.

Otherwise, they will become a "seed of socio-political instability," he said, referring to 528 cases of repeated complaints made by residents.

Dung said it is necessary to fully solve the outstanding cases.

"During the development process, involved land has to be revoked as per zoning plans in a way that will not prompt complaints.

"More than 70 percent of complaints involve land," he said.

In Vietnam, the government owns all land. People are only given land usage rights, which can be traded among residents. The land can be revoked under government orders with payment of due compensation.

At the conference, Huynh Phong Tranh, chief of the Government Inspectorate, blamed land-related complaints and denouncements on low compensation in comparison to market prices, and on corrupt officials.

Chu Pham Ngoc Hien, deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, admitted that many local authorities have not implemented relevant legal documents properly and many government officials have abused their power for their own personal gain.

According to the Governmental Inspectorate, more than 1.57 million residents have approached government agencies to lodge complaints or denouncements between 2008 and 2011.

In 2011, the number of complaints increased by 26 percent over 2008. Complaints in groups increased by nearly 65 percent over the same period with more than 161,000 people involved, the Inspectorate said in a report at the conference.

Nearly 3,000 people have been fined and 328 investigated by police for their wrongdoings in action taken on public complaints, it added.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that much more needs to be done to gather information on land disputes across Vietnam.

Thayer said it is clear that when PM Dung holds a live teleconference on land complaints, he needs to hear views from all the relevant stakeholders.

"Members of the National Assembly will need access to all available sources of information in order to make informed judgments," he said.

On the sidelines of the Wednesday teleconference, Nguyen Minh Quang, Minister

of Natural Resources and Environment, said his ministry had instructed Hai Phong City authorities to lease shrimp farms to Doan Van Vuon, the farmer involved in a sensational land eviction case that turned violent last January in the northern port city.

PM Dung had said earlier that the land eviction was wrong and ordered an investigation into the incident, which happened on January 5 when authorities in Hai Phong's Tien Lang District mobilized about 100 police officials and soldiers to force Vuon's family to return the 50-hectare plot of land that had been allotted to him for 14 years. A controversial decision claimed his right to use the land expired in 2007.

However, the family refused and set up homemade mines along the only entrance to their house to fight the forced eviction. During the confrontation, a mine exploded and Vuon's brother Doan Van Qui and two others allegedly shot at the force with two self-made guns, injuring four policemen and two soldiers.

In another case on April 24, police in the northern province of Hung Yen detained 20 people who fought back when the government evicted them from their farmland.

Around 500 police officers were sent to Van Giang District to revoke 5.8 hectares of agricultural land. Two policemen were slightly injured after people threw rocks at them.

The land is being reclaimed and the farmers' fields leveled for a major real estate project.

"Vietnam's development is increasingly encroaching on agricultural land surrounding major urban areas," Thayer said.

"Is this in the interest of sustainable development?"

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