An environmental ranger and a village chief were questioned yesterday by the Pailin Provincial Court for allegedly colluding to grab, clear and sell land in a protected area supported by the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, according to officials.
The questioning followed a complaint filed by the provincial Environment Department in January regarding the alleged forestry crime in Phnom Dambang village in O’Tavao commune in the Samlot protected area.
Kem Sokha, director of the provincial Environment Department, said the case revolves around 2 hectares of allegedly cleared land. While environment rangers are allowed to cultivate on the land, the clearing and selling is prohibited, he said.
“According to the law on protected forest, the sale of natural protected areas is illegal,” he said. “The court has called for testimony already . . . and will consider [it] based on the law and facts.”
Men Sok Koeurn, 38, the environment ranger questioned in court, yesterday disputed accusations he illegally claimed the forest land, but he admitted to having taken ownership of more than 1 hectare of land in the area in 2001. He later sold it to Srey Morn, a Pailin provincial military official, in 2004 with the approval of Phnom Dambang Village Chief Long Vuthy.
“I used to cultivate on the land, [but Morn] gave me $1,000 . . . for the transfer of the right to use the land,” he said.
Vuthy, who was questioned in court yesterday, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Morn, who was also previously questioned as part of the case, yesterday said he had purchased 21 hectares of land from different villagers, including Sok Koeurn. He said he began to buy land about four years ago, and acknowledged the area was protected, but maintained that “hundreds of families are living in it”.
“If you want to evict [me] or withdraw the land, it has to be done to all the people, not only one person,” he said.
The Samlot protected area consists of over 600,000 hectares of land, and is a joint conservation effort of the Ministry of Environment and actress Angelina Jolie’s foundation.
Thol Kim Hing, the prosecutor in charge of this case, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Kong Mony Chan, director of the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, said “it’s very challenging to protect the forest at this moment”, noting such cases are common in the area.
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro