Nearly 30,000ha of flooded forest land stretching across the six provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake have been illegally occupied or cleared by both ordinary citizens and in some cases public officials acting in a personal capacity.

Thus far, only 7,000ha have been confiscated from the encroachers and returned to state control but the government says it will seize and reforest all of it eventually.

The finding was the result of a week-long investigation led by Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Chea Sophara following orders from Prime Minister Hun Sen to get the situation under control.

Hun Sen said on November 28 that tens of thousands of hectares of flooded forest – which is a vital natural habitat used by Tonle Sap Lake fish for spawning – have been cleared of their tree cover. He ordered an investigation and the prosecution without exception of those involved in these crimes.

Sophara recently led a working group to inspect flooded forest areas in Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces after previously inspecting the four other provinces around the lake – Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Kampong Thom.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon also went along to investigate the flooded forest areas.

Sakhon on December 6 said the preliminary results of the investigation show that nearly 30,000ha of wetlands have been illegally cleared, but all of them will be reclaimed and rehabilitated.

He said that in Battambang alone, the cleared surface is about 12,000ha and in Banteay Meanchey the number stands at 5,350ha. Siem Reap has at least 1,970ha illegally cleared and Pursat has as much as 4,000ha. In Kampong Thom, they found 3,500ha and Kampong Chhnang another 2,000ha.

“We forwarded these cases to the Tonle Sap Authority to demarcate the region with boundary posts where the areas have not been demarcated in the past or the posts had disappeared.

“We continue to search for any suspects who have encroached and occupied the land in Region 3 of the Tonle Sap Lake area. Provincial authorities will begin holding regular meetings to coordinate their activities and prevent any further illegal clearance or control of Region 3,” Sakhon said.

According to a sub-decree issued in 2011, the areas around the Tonle Sap Lake are divided into three regions. Region 1 is located from the national roads in the six provinces down to Region 2, which is rice fields and farmlands.

The area from Region 2 to the main lake is Region 3, which is supposed to be preserved as natural habitat for fish to use as spawning grounds and anyone who occupies or clears it is subject to punishment.

Sakhon said that after all of the encroached land has been seized, it will be reforested and marked with posts and signs to clearly show that it is nature reserve area.

In some cases where the perpetrators were unaware that they were on protected land, the authorities may let the people who planted crops in those areas harvest them before the land is taken back.

During the first part of the operation last week, officials said around 100 suspects had been identified and some of them were already sent to court in each of the six provinces.

Hun Sen last week also ordered the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to probe the involvement of government officials implicated in these crimes. He even named former Kampong Chhnang provincial governor Chhour Chandoeun as the probable guilty party in the grabbing of more than 2,000ha, though Chandoeun has vigorously denied the allegations.

ACU chief Om Yentieng told The Post on December 7 that his unit is working with several ministries and other relevant institutions to take legal action against those who committed these crimes whenever it is related to corrupt acts by public officials.

Yentieng declined to go into details about the case of Chandoeun, saying the ACU was working on the investigation and official results will be announced after it is completed.

“If you are asking specifically about the case involving the former governor of Kampong Chhnang province, I will remind you that it is [ACU] policy to never comment on an active investigation,” he said.