Butom Sakor district administration officials in Koh Kong province arrested a suspect last Monday who was logging in a flooded forest in Angdong Teuk village in Angdong Teuk Commune, while four of his accomplice fled the scene.
Koh Kong provincial Environment Department director Man Phala said yesterday that illegal loggers have cleared 45ha of the forests, which prompted them to carry out the operation to arrest the culprits.
The arrest has exposed how a land-grabbing cartel is operating in the area to acquire forest land after hearing the value of land prices are on the rise. Local workers were hired by the cartel to clear the forest when authorities are not monitoring the area.
Phala lamented that the group failed to protect the natural forest and the wildlife sanctuary.
“The land which the offenders cleared was a flooded forest located in the Dang Peng Multiple Use Area in Botum Sakor district, Koh Kong province, which is a protected area for the community."
“We intercepted them when they were conducting the clearing works on Monday. Five people were involved, but only one was arrested while four others fled into the forest,” he said.
Phala said after interrogation, the suspect admitted that he was hired by a group to clear the forest but was unable to reveal any details about the people who ordered him to do the job.
“Based on his feedback, it appears he was hired to clear the forest but has not met the employer himself."
“He got the job through other people. At the moment, we are preparing a case to send him to court. The court has already issued a warrant to detain him temporarily,” he said, identifying the suspect as Sen Mao, 36.
Botum Sakor district governor Tou Savuth said people carry out land clearing for profit when authorities were elsewhere.
“As far as I know, they clear the land because of land price increases. But clearing of flooded forest is rare since we constantly monitor and intercept them,” he said.
The district covers the Andong Teuk and Thmor Sar communes and is about 120,000ha.
“We notice the group finds it difficult to clear the land secretly when we step up our surveillance, but they resume their logging work once we slow down. It is very hard to stop them,” said Phala.
Villagers living in Botum Salor district who declined to reveal their identities said once the land is cleared, a group takes ownership and later sells it to land dealers or private companies.
They said the forest clearing works have been going on for about two weeks.