Kampong Speu provincial environmental officials stepped in earlier this week to defuse a land dispute in Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary between villagers and new arrivals from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Brigade 70 unit.
According to a document signed in November by Defence Minister Tea Banh, the Ministry of Defence requested nearly 80 hectares of land from the Ministry of Environment in the wildlife sanctuary for 12 soldiers and their families.
Another document, signed by Environment Minister Say Sam Al, approved the request in March.
When the soldiers began clearing the land and digging trenches around what they considered their territory on June 12, villagers from Trapaing Chor commune confronted them, alleging the trenches encroached on their land.
“When villagers learned that they had bulldozers [in] the forest, about 40 villagers, some [holding] knives, came to stop them,” said Prom Sothy, a former community representative.
The confusion may have been exacerbated by the Provincial Environment Department’s initial opposition to six Brigade 70 soldiers and their families arriving on the land in 2016, before the ministry had approved Banh’s request. In response, department officials torched at least one soldier’s home.
“The sanctuary officer went to burn it and they burned [the house] because they had built illegally,” said Choeun Sothun, director of the department.
The department convened a meeting on Monday between environment officials and 10 villagers to quell the confrontations. At the meeting, the officials demanded that the Trapaing Chor villagers recognise the soldiers’ permission to clear the land accorded to them.
According to both Sothun and Chea Heang, director of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Preservation Organization, the villagers have no official documentation proving they own land in the sanctuary. He said they were given the land at some point during Mok Mareth’s 20-year tenure as head of the Environment Ministry.
Sothy, the former community representative, claimed that the villagers registered 1,000 hectares worth of “community” land with the Ministry of Interior in the late 1990s, which was gradually cut down to 400 hectares as private companies were granted land concessions in the area.
Because of the ambiguous boundaries of the land, Hean said, the villagers are hypersensitive to those they perceive as intruders. “The weak point [is] that the community does not have strong legal grounding without using GPS and without marking the border, resulting [in them] losing little by little,” he said.
Sothun agreed to an official to demarcate the villagers’ 400 hectares on condition that they elect a “community leader”. “We do not know where the 400 hectares [are],” he joked. “They might have sold them all because there is no clear document.”