Nearly 200 villagers from Dang Peng commune in Koh Kong province’s Sre Ambel district on Friday stopped the authorities from dismantling the homes of four families alleged to have been built in a preservation area of the Cardamom Mountains.
Chiev Chheng, a protester from Preah Ang Keo village, said environment officers accused them of building their homes in a bid to grab state land in the protected wildlife sanctuary.
“This is their ancestral land. The prime minister’s volunteer students came to measure the land and gave it to them,” he said, referring to a national land-titling scheme launched by the prime minister in 2012.
Implemented by youth volunteers, the scheme’s mandate was to cover areas where families live without proper legal documentation on state land.
“The villagers did not come to live on the land immediately and just focused on farming. Now they want to live near the national road but when their homes were nearly complete, environment officers accused them of living on conservation land,” Chheng said.
Khun Voeung, one of the homeowners, said his parents had given him the land. He also claimed to hold a certificate issued by the prime minister’s volunteer students confirming his ownership of the plot.
“I don’t know what to do. I need to talk with my family and the authorities. I think what the authorities are trying to do is not right,” he said.
Eng You, a clerk at Dang Peng commune, said some villagers have been living in the area for a long time.
He said while some hold land titles to prove their ownership, the authorities have never issued land titles for people living near the base of the Cardamom Mountains.
“In the area, some villagers have land titles but some others don’t have any. Those who hold proper land titles are the ones who have lived in that area for a long time and whose houses do not affect conservation areas."
“Some villagers don’t have land titles because the authority will not register the land since it is too close to the Cardamom Mountains. Villagers are not allowed to live in that area,” he said.
Koh Kong provincial environment department director Mon Phalla told The Post on Sunday that environment officers had no intention of dismantling the villagers’ homes.
He said his officers had warned villagers not to build them or shacks in the wildlife sanctuary near the Cardamom Mountains but to no avail.
Phalla said before the dismantling, some villagers had agreed to relocate voluntarily but failed to follow through with the promise.
“If they don’t move out voluntarily, we will file a complaint to court against them. We’ll let legal procedures take its course."
“We tried to talk with them many times but they don’t seem to understand. We have no other option,” he said.
Mean Prom Mony, Koh Kong provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said on Sunday that he was not aware of the case but called on the authorities to seek a solution instead of lodging a legal complaint against the villagers.
He said because some villagers had settled in the area before it was designated a conservation area by sub-decree, the authorities should set aside some plots for them.
“We want law enforcement officers to set aside some plots for villagers who had lived there before the sub-degree transformed the area into a conservation zone. We don’t want to see them to relocated after living there for so many years. If they move, where will they go?”