Members of Battambang province’s forest community and relevant authorities on Tuesday claimed that over 100ha of forest land in Samlot Protected Area have been illegally cleared by wealthy citizens and armed forces in order to place it under their ownership.
Samlot community representative Yat Neang, 62, told The Post on Tuesday that illegal clearing in the protected area has been happening for years, with people burning the forest in order to extend farmlands.
“The clearing has been taking place in the villages of O’Ach Krabei, O’Slev, O’Thma and O’Trabek Chou. Most of the people who cleared and burned the forest were officers in the armed forces and rich and powerful people,” he said.
O’Tatoeng forest community head Moeng Moeun claimed that most of the recent logging and clearing activities in the Samlot Protected Area had been conducted by officials of the military’s Border Protection Unit 502.
“They say the forest land belongs to the state and, because it is located along the border, the army has the right to create strategic outposts to deploy patrolling units in order to monitor the safety and security of the border,” she said.
Moeun said after the land was cleared by military forces, her community members, including commune chiefs, reported to district authorities and experts at the provincial environment department seeking an investigation.
Samlot commune chief Thoem Proeung said if the military needed to build on the land, national or provincial authorities would request cooperation from the local authorities and environmental experts, but there had been no such move.
“I think they clear forest land in the area in order to sell it to land traders. There is currently a rumour that a group of Chinese nationals are waiting to purchase the cleared land,” he said.
However, Proeung said the case had gone quiet after experts from the provincial environment department inspected the area and issued an announcement requiring Unit 502 to suspend illegal land clearing and remove all newly constructed buildings from the Samlot Protected Area.
Provincial environment department director Kort Boran told The Post on Tuesday that after inspecting the site, he issued a letter to inform Unit 502 that logging, clearing and land grabbing were prohibited and requested the unit to remove its buildings from the area.
“We do not stop them if they have official documents issued by the Ministry of National Defence and have permission from the Ministry of Environment confirming the construction of a military base. But we do not want to make the mistake of having known about a possible crime and not preventing it,” he said.
Border Protection Unit 502 commander Hok Hun Hort admitted to The Post on Tuesday that he had not received permission from Ministry of National Defence for constructing a military base or patrol outpost.
However, he claimed he has prepared a request to the national level via provincial sub-division and regional commanders.
“At the moment, the border military Unit 502 development team has been temporarily suspended. But we will not pull down the four buildings in the O’Slev area because they are on the location of our old base, which was offered to Unit 502 in 2003,” he said.