Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Foul play stalks community forest

Foul play stalks community forest

Foul play stalks community forest

BUDDHIST monks supervising a community forest project in the Kampong Thom village

of Trapang Chom Bok allege that powerful interests are resorting to murder to seize

community land for an agro-business project.

Ly Khom, head of Trapang Chom Bok's Wat Vor Yeav, has linked the October 11 shooting

of Ou Yon, an activist with the Buddhist Development for Kampong Thom Association

(BFDK), to a land grab attempt by former Kampong Svay District Governor Ly Kam Say

in collusion with senior provincial government officials.

Athough police attribute the killing to a robbery attempt, an ongoing Adhoc investigation

into the killing has revealed that the assailants spent time burning BFDK documents

after the shooting and left two rings of Yon's by his body.

Khom told the Post the murder was only the most dramatic event in a three-month standoff

between local villagers and developers.

"We are small ants biting at elephants' feet," Khom said in reference to

efforts by local monks and villagers to resist attempts by developers led by Say

to create a cashew nut plantation on land decreed by the Agricultural Ministry as

"community forest" designed for environmentally friendly production of

food and products for local sale and use.

According to Khom, loggers employed by Say began cutting trees in the community forest

area after the issue of a letter dated August 5 and signed by the Minister of the

Council of Ministers, Sok An, authorizing Say to develop "spare forest areas"

for cashew plantation development.

Khom says the letter's key proviso, that the plantation development "not affect

the local people's livelihood" has been ignored, with almost half of the community

forest - 947 hectares - cleared of land and planted with cashew nut seedlings.

"Say has used Sok An's letter as a 'scare tactic', showing it to local people

to justify the clearing of the forest for his cassava plantation," Khom told

the Post

The effect of the land grab on the 346 affected families - including a community

of the Kuoy indigenous hill tribe who depend on the community forest for sustenance

- has been catastrophic.

Residents report that their ability to collect adequate amounts of the fruit, vines,

herbs and firewood on which their local economy depends has decreased exponentially

since tree-cutting began.

"This forest is our food supply," said villager Chun Bun Choeun of the

shrinkage in the community forest. "If they take [the forest], they should kill

us first."

In response to villagers' concerns, the Minister of Agriculture, Chea Song, signed

a letter dated September 21 ordering Kampong Thom provincial officials to cease all

forest clearing operations in the community forest areas.

Song's order has apparently fallen on deaf ears.

"They're continuing to clear the forest," Khom said, adding that he had

also been threatened by developers for criticizing the effect of the plantation project

on the villages community forest.

"We respect the law, but they are making the rules [in this situation] so they

ignore it."

In spite of a lack of Government support and the very real threat of physical violence,

Khom says he and his fellow monks and villagers are determined to salvage what remains

of their community forest.

"We are used to being cheated by development project officers who promised us

improved living standards but in fact delivered the opposite," he said. "We

don't want to be cheated anymore."

Post attempts to contact Say before publication were unsuccessful.

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