Illegal land grab cases are on the rise in protected areas as land prices have soared and the development of the agricultural and agro-industrial sectors has ballooned, Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said.
“In 1964, Cambodia was 73 per cent forest land with a population of only 5.7 million. But in 2018, the country was 46.86 per cent forest land – 8.5 million hectares – with a population of 16 million,” he said.
Pheaktra said the lost land has been turned into plantation or for housing.
“Development has put pressure on natural resources. Through the National Council for Sustainable Development, we prepared the National Environment Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2023 to manage and reduce impacts on the environment,” he said.
He said the ministry has been implementing orders of a July 3 Cabinet meeting where Prime Minister Hun Sen instructed the ministries of Environment; Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction; and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to compile information on illegally occupied land to possibly allocate the land to locals.
“This is the right decision leading to solutions to land problems in our protected areas. When people have long occupied land and relied on it for their livelihoods, we will allocate the land to them.
“We are reaching the point of solving land problems in natural protected areas decisively. We mark boundaries clearly and do whatever it takes to protect those areas. This is effective in stopping illegal land encroachments,” he said.
Pen Bunna, the local community empowerment programme officer at rights group Adhoc, said forest land has long been cleared by some rich and powerful people for private ownership. Relevant state institutions are the ones to take responsibility for those cases, he said.
“If we just talk about it, it is not enough because our country has clear laws. Encroaching on forest land for private ownership must carry penalties. At the same time, the relevant ministries and institutions have to use the law to revoke or condemn individuals for encroaching on state land.
“The Forestry Laws state criminals have to take responsibility and repay the damage to the forest and restore it to its original state,” he said.
Mondulkiri forest activist Kroeung Tola said some corrupt officials have turned a blind eye to encroachment on state forest land.