Minister of Environment Say Sam Al has sent letters to 20 provincial governors telling them to provide relevant documents on land issues in natural resource protected areas.

This, as an inter-ministerial team begins to allocate land to citizens on the recommendation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The ministry’s secretary of state and spokesman Neth Pheaktra said: “The ministry manages, protects and conserves over 7.3 million hectares located in 20 provinces.

“The minister [Sam Al] wrote to the provincial governors directing them to submit a list of landholders in protected areas to the ministry as data to avoid state land grabbing fraud.”

In a meeting at the Council of Ministers on July 3, Hun Sen warned of legal action against powerful and wealthy people who use citizens to encroach on forest land.

He also ordered the ministries of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Environment to allocate protected land and issue land titles to poor people who have been living in the forests.

He said they depend on forests in the state’s protected areas and they must receive titles within the next few months.

After Hun Sen’s announcement, agriculture minister Veng Sakhorn issued a letter on July 3, calling for the formation of 18 working groups to research and verify forest land data.

Pheaktra said the capital and four provinces – Kandal, Svay Rieng, Prey Veng and Kampong Cham – have no natural resources to protect.

Immediately following Hun Sen’s orders, the environment ministry sent officials to work on land allocation in Koh Kong, among other places, he said.

Sam Al’s July 6 letter to Preah Vihear provincial governor Prak Sovann confirmed that the inter-ministerial working group would follow Hun Sen’s orders to allocate land and grant titles to the people.

In the letter, Sam Al gave Sovann until July 15 to submit the documents.

Sovann and Preah Vihear provincial Department of Environment director Song Chan Socheat could not be reached for comment.

Preah Vihear coordinator for rights group Adhoc Lor Chan said most protected areas in Preah Vihear under the management of the environment ministry have been encroached on by powerful and rich people and private companies.

Chan said over 2,000ha in Boeung Tonle Mrech protected area, Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, and Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary has been encroached on. Some areas were occupied almost entirely to grow crops like cashew trees.

“Most people who own land in protected areas are rich and powerful. Citizens have to go to prison if they cut a tree. The rich bulldoze the land without any problems,” he said, adding that Hun Sen’s orders to give land to citizens will hardly benefit the poor.

The rich who have occupied the land illegally will benefit even more if the teams in charge of giving land to citizens do not study the matter carefully or do not perform the work transparently, he said.