More than 100 families living in Chroy Svay commune in Koh Kong province’s Sre Ambel district protested in front of the district hall to demand that authorities keep 63ha of lowland forest as state property and take legal action against forest encroachers.

A community representative told The Post on condition of anonymity that over 13ha of the forest in the commune’s Chroy Svay Khang Keurt village had been illegally cleared by unidentified individuals early this year.

People in the commune had already protested many times at the village and commune halls about the encroachment but local officials have yet to take any action.

"People continue to demand that the land be kept as state property forever for the benefits of the fishing community. People also demand a response from experts and authorities to make the problem known and find the intruders so they can be punished according to the law," he said.

District governor Chea Chankanha said he had met residents and explained the problem to them, and that the district administration would investigate the issue.

"In the past, we had not received information from local officials, so to resolve this issue we need to study it in detail. We are working with the local authorities," he said.

Provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc Thong Chandara said that early this year, there were many cases of encroachment on state land, and the case in Chroy Svay commune may involve a conspiracy to grab state land for private ownership.

"If this is state land and authorities have conspired to create legal documents to privatise it, then this is illegal because the land belongs to the state. Before it is handed over to the private sector or an individual, there must be a sub-decree from the government to this effect," he said.

According to community representatives, the land is a mangrove forest and a habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna that has improved people's livelihoods for many generations.

According to the community representative, the government revoked the Chan Rath Group’s development rights for the 63ha in 2014 and placed the land under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment. The government has since then granted use of the land to the people in Chroy Svay commune.