Officials say land will be used for the families of soldiers stationed at the border, but a local rights group says the transfer is unnecessary.
A RECENT subdecree has reclassified 1,600 hectares of protected state forest in Preah Vihear province's Choam Khsan district and handed it over to the Ministry of Defence for development by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, officials said this week.
Tong Yee, chief of the Forest Administration in the district, said Subdecree 63, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 23, has transferred the swath of State Permanent Forest Preserve Land to the ministry's State Property Controlling Authority for development.
"The relevant officials are now working according to the prime minister's instructions," he said Wednesday.
"The Defence Ministry has the right to develop this land according to the military's requirements."
King Krida, director of the provincial Department of Agriculture, said that the land, in Choam Khsan's Kuntuot commune, would be given to the families of RCAF soldiers serving along the country's northern border with Thailand.
He said that a 457-hectare plot in Choam Khsan district's Choam Khsan commune that is currently administered by the army had become crowded with soldiers' families, prompting the recent transfer.
He added that local authorities were in the process of approving further transfers for the purpose of helping the families.
"The government's strategy is to provide land for soldiers and their family members so they can live close to their husbands and support their relatives while their husbands are defending the nation," he said Wednesday, adding that there were about 1 million hectares of protected forest in Preah Vihear.
But activists with the Cambodian rights group Adhoc say the transfers of protected forest could set a damaging precedent for the country's border regions, claiming the military already had ample land to house the families of front line troops.
"This policy will destroy forest land. They are giving land to soldiers' family members in order to attract people to join the military ... and to fill in the gap in their [recruitment] lists," said Hor Neat, Adhoc's coordinator for Preah Vihear province.
"I don't think it is right to extend more forest land to soldiers' families. Soldiers have their military bases to plant trees and farm land."
He added that the policy could also bring soldiers' families into danger in the event that fighting breaks out with Thailand.
But Sao Socheat, deputy commander of Military Region 4, said the land given to soldiers' family members encouraged relatives to support troops stationed at the border and improved the fighters' morale.
"When soldiers' families have land to farm and support their living, they are happy to work and defend the nation. They do not have to worry about feeding their children and wives in the rear," Sao Socheat said. "Their family members do not live in military bases. They have settled in different places far away from the bases. So nothing happening at the border will affect them."
He added that plots would also be granted to disabled army veterans, enabling them to support themselves and their children.
King Krida added that the necessity of protecting the border justified the transfer of relatively small areas of forest.
"Whether it affects wildlife or not isn't an issue," he said.
"Wildlife is not as important as human beings and national defence."