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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rich and powerful snatching up land illegally in Siem Reap area

Rich and powerful snatching up land illegally in Siem Reap area

Areport prepared for Prime Minister Hun Sen and obtained by the Post documents

widespread land grabbing in Siem Reap province and calls for the prosecution of

those involved in the illegal deals.

Written by Vann Sophanna, director

of the Forestry Administration's northern region, the January 2005 report claims

that more than half of Banteay Srey district's 29,000 hectares of Permanent

Forest Estate (PFE) have been illegally claimed by private

landowners

PFEs are defined as forested areas that can only be managed by

the government, concession holders, local communities or "other forest users"

for the purpose of long-term sustainability.

Sophanna insists that

landholders who have bought or taken lands defined as PFE must return their

plots to the state or face legal action.

"I think that a public awareness

campaign about forestry has not stopped the land grabs. Therefore, from now we

have to take legal action against those powerful individuals and the rich," he

said.

Sophanna investigated land ownership in Khnar Sanday, Rumchek,

Preah Dak, Thbang and Ta Ek communes, all located north of the Angkor

Archeological Park.

His report named 97 people who said they owned a

combined total of 2,483 hectares of protected land. A further 14,616 hectares

were claimed by unidentified parties. Most of the identified landowners were

from Phnom Penh.

The report included a map of the areas illegally

acquired (see page 2), photographs of bulldozers clearing forested land and

numerous thumb-printed complaints from locals angry about being denied access to

land that previously sustained their livelihoods.

Sophanna said that as

property values increased, those with power and money were using local officials

to claim the land, which was sometimes occupied or used by local communities.

The 2002 Forestry Law gives ownership of all "forested" lands to the

government. It doesn't, however, give a clear definition of what is meant by

"forested". As a result, many are eager to claim ownership of land not yet

demarcated and clear it before a stricter interpretation of the law is

enforced.

Some landholders gained approval from village, commune or

district chiefs to have cadastral officials survey PFE lands and produce land

titles. Others hired local villagers to clear the forest and sell it on behalf

of the landowner.

Un Vong, district governor of Banteay Srei, refuted the

results of the report, telling the Post April 19 that no land grabbing was

occurring in his district.

His name, however, appears on a document dated

July 1, 2004, transferring a 440-hectare plot from "villagers" to "Miss Um

Eng".

The document also bears official stamps and signatures from the

chiefs of Khnar Sanday and Rumchek communes, where the land is located.

When pressed for details about the documents, Vong, speaking by

telephone, said that he did not want to confirm anything, suggested the Post

come to Banteay Srey and then hung up.

About 185 villagers from Khnar

Sanday and Rumchek commune said their living conditions were affected by the

illegal deals and thumb printed an appeal for the government to reclaim the

forest.

Sophanna, who is also an advisor to Senate president Chea Sim,

compiled the 85-page report after an April 31, 2004, speech by Hun Sen. At the

time, Hun Sen urged the rich and powerful to give up any land they had acquired

illegally.

Other provincial authorities had failed to heed the prime

minister's call to protect state-owned land.

Rampant land snatching would

have long-term effects for the population in Siem Reap and its tourism industry,

Sophanna said.

"I think that within the next 15 years there will be no

water to use, and the temples will also be affected when there is no forest to

protect them," he said.

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