In a meeting with villagers who claim a portion of the forest they depend on for their livelihoods was illegally sold, Mondulkiri’s Sen Monorom town governor on Tuesday acknowledged the land had indeed been sold, but insisted it had been privately owned, not state-owned as the villagers contend.
Sen Monorom Governor Long Vibol met with villagers from Laoka village, who earlier this week claimed that at least 80 hectares of forestland had been covertly and illegally sold, with local authorities signing off on the sale.
Phloek Phearum, a community representative, said the woman who showed up on Monday and claimed to own the 50 hectares of forestland had showed up again on Tuesday, prompting some 30 villagers to protest at the town hall.
At the town hall, Governor Vibol handed villagers copies of documents identifying three separate owners of the land, though the documents seem to involve only small plots of land.
Phearum identified the sellers as Kreun Hun, who sold a plot of land measuring 100 by 1,000 metres to Khun Chantha; Nhroun Khut, who sold a plot of land measuring 300 by 250 metres to Kroeung Yun in 2007; and Chea Sophal, who sold a plot of land measuring 100 by 1,000 metres to Kroeung Yun. The plots only total 25 hectares.
Earlier this week, the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance identified the woman behind the 50 hectares of land as Choeun Kimleng, and two other people by the names of Ly Chhun and Sok Sokha as also having purchased land.
“It is a state forest that we all get benefits from – forest products,” Phearum said. “It is not privately owned. They sold it, but most of our community members were unaware, so we are disputing [it].”
However, Vibol said he told villagers the area was privately owned. He confirmed he showed them the documents and had asked them to return if they needed further assistance.
“They say the land was grabbed, but they did not have any documents to prove it, while other [individuals] have ownership letters since 2012, signed by local authorities,” he said. “Why [would it be] forestland if they have letters claiming to be owners since 2012 before I became the governor here?”
He added that he had no authority to cancel the ownership.
Phearum managed to speak with Hun, one of the sellers, who denied having sold state land, but once did sell farmland.
San Chey, executive director for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said many cases of land sales can be complicated and urged relevant authorities to verify. “It is a chronic issue,” he said.
Seng Sokheng, with the Peace Building Network, said land-grabs have taken place in Laoka for several years. “In general, the picture of land-grabbing by powerful companies is the use of all kinds of methods to exploit land and natural resources of indigenous peoples,” he wrote in an email.