After a brief détente, a fight over the Prey Trolach community forest in Battambang province that has its citizen guardians and the Forestry Administration pitted against the military is back on, those working to protect the area from illegal logging said yesterday.
Since it was deemed a community forest in 2004, the 1,335-hectare area in Roka Kiri has been legally managed and protected by villagers living there.
But community representatives told the Post on August 1 that shortly after a national land-titling scheme was announced in June, soldiers, police and others had rushed into the area, seizing a final opportunity to clear forest and falsely claim it as their property.
John Macgregor, a project adviser for the livelihood group After the Flood, said the land grabbers had been pushed out by district authorities backed by police and the forestry cantonment on August 8 after the story was publicised – but not for long.
“The military and their bulldozers and their guns all left, but as of the last three or so nights, they have returned, they’ve been sneaking in at night and clearing trees and allowing other people to clear trees, charging 2,000 riel per koryun [tractor-pulled cart],” he said.
The land grabbers, mainly soldiers, had planted corn on the cleared land and built small huts to create the appearance that they were the cultivators of land before land surveyors arrived, Macgregor added.
Soldiers have been employing thugs armed with knives to intimidate community rangers that have been patrolling the area day and night, he added.
Pich Malai, Roka Kiri district governor, said he had taken action against the usurpers on August 8 after finding that there was validity to the community’s claims, but stressed it was not just soldiers grabbing land.
“I am not on anyone’s side. All sorts of people are involved, but the accusations are only made against groups of the armed forces. This affects their reputation and dignity,” he said.
Only 20 hectares of forest had been cleared rather than the 200 hectares claimed by NGOs, Malai added.
“We found that those who have cleared the land are all kinds of people including villagers, police, military police and soldiers,” he said.
Nhov Nharn, director of Ockenden Cambodia, an NGO focusing on agro-forestry and community mobilisation, agreed some of the land grabbers were civilians but denied they were everyday, run-of-the-mill villagers.
“I think what they mean is that those who are district councillors and commune councillors, they are not simple villagers,” he said.
Kim Chantha, Battambang provincial Forestry Administration chief of cantonment and Po Vannak, provincial military police commander, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
There are 825 families that are members of the Preah Trolach Community Forest living in five villages surrounding the forest.
Macgregor said a 200-hectare area of the forest had also been granted the University of Battambang for research purpose by Prime Minister Hun Sen, though this had not been affected by the encroachment.
The University of Battambang declined to comment.