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NGO, rangers probe 300ha land grab in wildlife sanctuary

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NGO Natural Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organisation and environmental officials investigated the alleged encroachment on protected land in Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary on July 8. Supplied

NGO, rangers probe 300ha land grab in wildlife sanctuary

NGO Natural Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organisation and environmental officials are investigating the alleged encroachment on protected land in Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary after a newly formed community claimed that fake documents were prepared to grab more than 300ha there.

The NGO’s director Chea Hean told The Post on Monday that he and several environmental rangers from the sanctuary are collecting all the relevant data.

Once the investigation is complete, he said, they will send a report to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Interior so they can take swift action against the masterminds behind the alleged scam.

Hean said the land grab happened in Sre Kin village in Oral district’s Trapaing Chor commune after the creation of the Odom Sre Khpuos community.

Villagers then elected a chief, he said, who, along with the community members, grabbed forest land illegally to sell, under the pretext that it belonged to them.

When the rangers came to enforce the law, Hean said, the Odom Sre Khpuos community chief mobilised villagers to protest and ask them not to confiscate the land as state property.

“If they didn’t protest, the land dealers would sue them for fraud, so they had to protest to demand the land."

“[Some] local authorities cooperated with the community by asking villagers to thumb-print [documents] saying that the land in the wildlife sanctuary was village farmland, but actually the land in the area belonged to the protected wildlife sanctuary,” he said.

Hean said machinery was brought in to clear plots ranging from 10 to 30ha, and in total some 300ha of protected land was grabbed.

Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary deputy director Hul Mara said villagers were mobilised to protest against them when they went to investigate the case. “If [it was only] villagers who grabbed the land, they wouldn’t have grabbed such a large area.

“They would only have grabbed 4 or 5ha. Villagers on their own wouldn’t dare, and have no right, to claim this protected forest land. But the land that was grabbed is surrounded by 400 to 500 boundary markers,” he said.

Mara said the team is trying to solve the issue and will make a report to the provincial Environment Department that it would forward to the Ministry of Environment.

Kampong Speu provincial governor Vei Samnang said on Monday night that relevant officials are investigating the issue before taking legal action. “We have assigned our officials to destroy the boundary makers used to surround the land,” he said.

Oral district governor Moung Thy said legal action had already been taken against land grabbers including revoking some land. “Those villagers just grabbed the land. People in other areas have official land titles,” he said.

Provincial environment department deputy director Nov Nak said on Tuesday that no authority could issue land titles for the villagers because the grabbed land is inside the sanctuary.

“It is the villagers’ right to protest to demand the land, but we as environmental rangers must implement the law to protect the area’s natural resources,” he said.

Nak said that despite the protests of more than 10 villagers, the rangers removed some boundary markers on Monday.

No representative of the accused community could be reached for comment.

The Ministry of Environment has made clear that any title issued for land inside protected areas is invalid, even if the village and commune authorities recognised them.