The government has created a new national committee to tackle forest land clearing and grabbing.
However, the move was immediately shot down by a prominent forest activist who said it would be ineffective, given the systemic collusion between the authorities and land grabbers.
A directive signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and dated June 21 said the new committee consisted of 13 members from relevant ministries, with Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries taking the helm.
It said the new committee is responsible for publicising forestry law, and implementing and enforcing the government’s action plans to eliminate and prevent grabbing of state forest land for private ownership.
The committee is also obliged to collaborate with international NGOs and donor communities in implementing its tasks, compiling reports along with recommendations for the government, and creating an effective mechanism for its provincial sub-committees to address illegal forest clearing in each province.
Chea Hean, the director of the NGO Natural Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organisation (NRWPO), expressed scepticism that the establishment of a new national committee would bear fruit.
He said many such committees had already been created over the past years but had been ineffective in tackling forestry crimes.
Hean cited an instance in Kampong Speu province where the authorities, he said, colluded with traders and land grabbers to clear forest in a protected wildlife sanctuary for private ownership.
“In the protected Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, land grabbers, some villagers and traders colluded with local authorities in forging documents which were signed and approved by the relevant authorities."
“They forged documents to deceive the public and higher authorities that the land in question is farmland when it was, in fact, protected forest land. When we inspected the area while on a field visit, we found that it was actually protected forest land,” he said.
Hean said he would submit a letter to Minister of Interior Sar Kheng next week requesting him to assign a task force to inspect the sites.
“Sooner or later, [the national committee] officials will trade blames. The Ministry of Agriculture will point fingers at the Ministry of Environment. The Ministry of Environment will, for example, say forest land clearing occurs in places under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said.
Hean cited the most recent case of a land dispute in Kampong Speu province on Tuesday when the provincial governor revoked the ownership of state forest land that had been grabbed through forged documentation.
He said traders had hired villagers to collude with local authorities in Oral district to forge documents, claiming the land was farmland so they could sell it to a private company.
“The villagers were provided only a few benefits and a small amount of money in exchange for their thumbprints to confirm the land in question was their farmland. In reality, it is forest land belonging to the state."
“The most effective measure to prevent encroachment on forest land is for the top leadership to make a field visit and inspect the actual sites in question. By so doing, they can prevent lower-level authorities from conspiring to take over state forest land,” he said.