Authorities in Battambang province have stopped some 150 residents, led by a powerful official, from planting tree saplings in the Samlot Protected Area, amid allegations that the act was merely a pretext to seize protected land for private ownership.

The group, led by Serei Kosal, a well-known senior government official, on Sunday arrived in minivans and began planting the saplings on a plot of land near where the government is constructing a ring road.

The land in Samlot district and the ring road are in the protected area under the control of the Department of Environment.

More than 200 saplings, out of a planned 650, had been planted on Sunday morning when Department of Environment officials, soldiers, police and civil society environmental organisations arrived to halt the activities.

Samlot commune police chief Hang Ream told The Post on Monday that having received a report from local people of suspicious activity, authorities immediately went to the site and instructed them to stop.

“They didn’t inform the local authorities and it is a dangerous area because it is near the Thai border. At first, they said they had planted the trees on their own land but, when we continued to question them, it became clear that the land belongs to the state."

“They were planting the trees randomly on state land. Anyway, the area contains landmines and we’re concerned for their safety,” Ream said.

Provincial Environment Department director Kort Boran told The Post that ordinary people must inform the authorities when carrying out any activity on state land, not least in order to safeguard their safety, but they had failed to do so.

He also noted the presence of landmines and suspected that the group’s intention was to clear the land to claim ownership for themselves.

“That could be his [Kosal’s] aim because this is where the Cambodian Mine Action Centre is constructing the road and where heavy engineering personnel and equipment come and go."

“Land is expensive to buy there. But also, there are explosive devices, so it is dangerous,” Boran said.

A Samlot district resident, who asked not to be named, told The Post on Monday that Kosal had in the past cleared some 30ha of land at the Samlot Protected Area, which covers some 30,000ha, and claimed personal ownership.

The resident was sceptical of the group’s intentions and concerned that planting the saplings could be a pretext to grabbing the land.

“I am aware of the matter because Kosal has already cleared dozens of hectares of land in the conservation area next to Border Checkpoint 400. From my experience, when there are powerful people like him, environmental officials, subordinates, villagers – and even the district governor – don’t dare to do anything about it."

“This is a new thing – taking the trees to be planted without any local people living there. People were transported from Phnom Penh in minivans to live on the land in order to further his interests,” the resident said.

The Post could not reach Kosal for comment on Monday.