Forest and wildlife conservationists claim that land grabs and encroachment in the Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, which spans two districts of Preah Vihear province and one district of Siem Reap province, have increased significantly as of late.
Environmental activists worry that it may be a bad sign for Cambodia’s wildlife sanctuaries in general if this trend continues.
Ben Davis, a US conservationist working in the sanctuary, told The Post on December 28 that while illegal logging operations in the area have persisted, the jump in activity that he is most alarmed about is an increase in migrants from other provinces trying to occupy the land, with few if any locals from nearby communities apparently involved.
While patrolling, Davis said he had encountered people who have invaded the sanctuary and occupied its land by cutting down trees to set up outposts or camp sites and then used spray paint to mark the supposed boundaries of their newly acquired land.
Davis said these people had told him that they came from Battambang province.
He has also encountered a large number of border posts placed within the sanctuary’s boundaries, though the people responsible for placing them there are often nowhere to be found.
He said this creeping encroachment onto the sanctuary’s land is a grave threat to its continued existence.
“It’s not so much individual people or families who encroach upon the land in order to live there themselves. Most of them are actually working for businesses or have been hired by rich people to do it.
“People are told that if they seize the land, they will get a piece of it for themselves. For example, if they occupy 10ha of land, they’re told they’ll get to keep 5ha.
“In this latest case, we arrested two people and had them imprisoned two weeks ago. They claimed that all this [sanctuary] land belonged to their bosses,” he said.
According to Davis, most of the encroachers occupying land in the Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary immediately try to sell the land because they do not actually want to live there. He pointed out that the sanctuary’s land is largely useless for farming and agriculture because of its rocky soil.
Davis expressed uncertainty as to the motivation of the encroachers or the people paying them to do it given the poor soil conditions there but he speculated that it is possible that they ultimately intended to use the land – or sell it to be used by others – for something other than agriculture, such as mining or some other industry.
This sudden increase in activity has the appearances of an organised effort on behalf of persons unknown to illegally take possession of the sanctuary’s land, he said.
In December alone, Davis has witnessed firsthand numerous attempts to encroach upon more than 50ha in the protected area, causing significant damage and disrupting its use as a habitat by the sanctuary’s wildlife.
Preah Vihear provincial Department of Environment director Song Chan Socheat said he had not received any recent reports of illegal encroachment in the sanctuary, other than the reports related to the two men Davis had apprehended and who have since been sent to court on charges of land encroachment.
“According to the law, people who invade wildlife sanctuaries and conservation areas and try to occupy its land will be punished,” he said.
Lor Chan, the Preah Vihear provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he had been informed through unofficial channels that a large group of people had invaded and illegally occupied the Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, confirming the account given by Davis.
“I don’t want to take sides [on this issue] but there are definitely migrants encroaching on public land held by the local community as well as these protected areas and lands under Davis’ care,” he said.
According to Chan, if these people are doing this because they do not own any land to live on and actually need it for that purpose, they can request that the government grant them a social land concession taken from areas designated by the state for settlement instead of breaking the law and harming the environment by encroaching upon the land within wildlife sanctuaries or conservation areas.