With potential action by law enforcement officers and the possibility of court cases looming, a family in Pongro commune of Oddar Meanchey province’s Chongkal district has returned more than 16ha of land they had illegally occupied to the state.

Forestry Administration officials have been warning of legal action against those who defy the law and continue to occupy state land.

Provincial Forestry Administration director Im Savarith said on December 26 that the family in question had been encroaching on the land for some time now.

It was previously reserved for the placement of a broadcasting tower and the Pongro Chongkal forest rehabilitation station.

Savarith said the Forestry Administration previously instructed all parties involved in encroachment on the land to leave. Some families, he added, have now withdrawn but some have been stubborn and held out because they were cheated by others who sold the land to them without authorisation.

He said his administration will send those cases to court unless they voluntarily withdraw and sign a contract agreeing to stop using state land.

“We have initiated legal proceedings so we’re not in the education phase anymore because they are aware of what the government requires of them. But if they begin to act like responsible citizens before their time runs out, we can ask the leadership to dismiss their cases and remove their names from the list of offenders,” he said.

According to a contract signed by villagers identified as Ros Bun Thong and his wife Ham Poeut – both residents of Banteay Thmey village in Chongkal commune – the family was using and occupying state land because they thought they were the legitimate owners after another party claiming to own the land had fraudulently sold it to them.

“My family was cheated by a crook and lost thousands of dollars, but we don’t want to be targeted with legal action. Therefore, we are voluntarily giving control of the land back to the state,” the contract reads.

Panh Khan, chief of Pongro commune, said on December 26 that some people had grabbed state land to grow crops there. In the past, the commune authorities had also informed and advised the people doing so that it was illegal and they had no claims to ownership.

However, he said, those people claimed they were just using the land for agriculture for the time being and that they would not cause any problems and would leave whenever the state needed to use the land.

He said that over 60 families were now depending on the land set aside for the broadcasting tower and forest rehabilitation station, which covers an area of more than 100ha. He noted that some of the families occupied 5ha and others occupied 10ha or however much they were able to put under cultivation over the last two or three years.