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Koh Kong demonstration was not what it seemed

Koh Kong demonstration was not what it seemed


Dear Editor,


Villagers at a demonstration in Koh Kong province on September 10. Conflicting versions of the real causes of the demonstration have emerged.

I am very surprised and disappointed that The Phnom Penh Post, who has the good reputation of publishing non-biased articles, has written a factually incorrect and biased article about WildAid (now operating as Wildlife Alliance). The article ["Koh Kong villagers demand that WildAid withdraw from area", 11 September ] is in fact very naive and shows little investigation about the real cause of the demonstration.

When we were informed the previous day that the demonstration was being organized, we conducted our investigation and found that the inciter of the demonstration is a rich businessman who is not happy that the Koh Pao ranger station was constructed on the riverbank site where he wanted instead to build a commercial development.  His supporters are also not happy with WildAid/Wildlife Alliance firstly because the demarcation of State forests has limited the amount of land in each commune and most farmers have already sold all their land to developers, so there is no more land for sale. Secondly, when they go to clear more land illegally on State forest land, the Koh Pao station patrol units stop them from completing the clearings and selling the land. Therefore, they see WildAid/Wildlife Alliance as the main obstacle in their way.  To get rid of Wildlife Alliance, they organize demonstrations using poor people as their front. 

The article states that the issue of the demonstration is discontent from villagers because WildAid/Wildlife Alliance has not given them enough land to cultivate their crops. The facts are different. During the gathering on 8th September, community members present admitted having voluntarily sold their land within their Community Area to wealthy developers for highly undervalued prices, and are now faced with having no land, nor livelihood. 

This clearly shows that the real issue driving the demonstration is land speculation: land in Koh Pao has already been purchased, as in many other Koh Kong communes, by rich investors coming from Phnom Penh, other provinces and Thailand, who have pushed the farmers to sell their land and now these farmers have no more land to sell and have no more land for crops. 

As community members voiced a number of concerns, notably concerning their general lack of understanding about the land law and its relation to protected forests and other demarcated areas, HE Van Sophanna explained that the purpose of the Protected Forest is to protect the mangrove forests near Koh Pao and to conserve the habitat and biodiversity of the Cardamom Mountains, not to preserve land which belongs to "wealthy absentee landlords".

Because May Titthara did not contact us, the article has factual errors as follows: 

1)  The article states that 300 local people attended the demonstration at the Koh Poa ranger station. This is a factual error. At the most 100 people, not 300 people, attended. Our attached photograph shows number of people attending.

2)  The article states first that HE Van Sophanna is a Wildlife Alliance project officer and then that he is the Director of the Forestry Administration. This is incorrect, he is not a not a Wildlife Alliance project officer and nor is he the Director of the Forestry Administration: he is the Forestry Administration Chief of Coastal Inspectorate.

3)  The article states that the ranger station is a WildAid station. This is incorrect: the station belongs to the Forestry Administration, not WildAid/Wildlife Alliance.

4)  The article states that the land is under control of WildAid. This is incorrect: the land in question is State forest land under the jurisdiction of the State and the government agency in charge of the jurisdiction of this forest is the Forestry Administration, not Wildlife Alliance.

5)  The article states that villagers do not know where exactly is located the protected forest and that WildAid should tell them where they can have land for their crops. This is incorrect. Villagers are already very aware since 2004 of the boundaries of the protected forest. In 2004, the government led a participatory zoning and demarcation process with villagers to clearly delineate State Forests and commune land.

I believe that Wildlife Alliance's work is very important for the Cambodian people because we are helping preserve key natural resources for the future and we are helping the poorest farmers develop alternative livelihoods.

Suwanna Gauntlett

Co-founder Wildlife Alliance

Cambodia Country Director

Editor's note: The reporter of the article referred to above, May Titthara, says the Post contacted a WildAID employee at their Phnom Penh office who identified himself as Mr Sokhorn, declined to comment and referred all questions to Van Sophanna in Koh Kong. Read the original story at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com