A community forest in Battambang is being snatched up by opportunistic military and police officials seizing on the national land titling scheme as a final chance to secure territory, its longtime custodians and the groups that support them have said.
The 1,335-hectare Prey Trolach commune community forest in Roka Kiri district was established with local officials in 2004 and has since gained national recognition from the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries.
But since July 2, using pesticides to kill grass and bushes which are then burned before trees are felled and bulldozers brought in to finish the job, officials have cleared and grabbed between 150 and 200 hectares of the area, according to two NGOs working in the area.
Nhov Nharn, Director of Ockenden Cambodia, said low-level provincial officials had arrived shortly after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the land titling scheme on June 14 to meet the Community Forestry Management Committee.
“[He] told the committee they want to have the land because this is the last chance. After this, they say they have no chance to take the land,” he said.
“The committee said no and he still insisted on clearing land,” Nharn said, adding the official nicknamed Ming Maing had remained anonymous.
A member of the Prey Trolach community who also wished to remain anonymous said a senior district military official had led a group of others to clearland that they had planted corn on, though he estimated they had only taken over 40 hectares thus far.
“I went with the district governor and the forestry officer to tell them we will not allow groups of students to measure the land for them, but they did not care, they’re still planting on the land that they already cleared.”
Pich Malia, governor of Roka Kiri district, confirmed the military had been grabbing land.
“I already invited the community leader to come to show me about the map in the community forest, and I found some parts were taken over by a soldier,” he said.
In community forests, the local population helps sustainably manage and protect the forest so that they can benefit from the natural goods it produces.
Both the community at Prey Trolach and the NGOs that support them agree the Forestry Administration has played a positive supportive role in helping them do this for the best part of a decade.
But John McGregor, a project adviser for the livelihood group After the Flood, said the Forestry Administration was powerless to stop military forces that were being afforded political cover.
“It’s a pretty blatant incursion. These villagers have had full title to their forest for some time now, but regardless of that, the military have moved in with guns and logging trucks and are cutting it down,” he said.
“They’ve already lost about 175 hectares of the 1,335 hectares, and it looks like they will lose the lot unless somebody stops the military.”-