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Officials join protests against land-grabbing, forest-clearing in R'kiri

Officials join protests against land-grabbing, forest-clearing in R'kiri

Adhoc says Thursday demonstrations marked the first time government officials involved themselves in efforts to stem illegal clearing.

VILLAGERS and local NGOs in Ratanakkiri province were joined by local officials on two different peaceful demonstrations against illegal forest-clearing and land-grabbing on Thursday, according to local rights group Adhoc.

Adhoc coordinator Pen Bonnar said an event held Thursday in Banlung, the provincial capital, was the fourth march against illegal logging in the province but the first to involve government officials.

"We are very happy that the people and the authorities joined together for our march to protect the natural forests and fight illegal clearing," he said. "This is the fourth time our march demanded that the authorities make an effort to enforce the law ... and it is the first time that the authorities have joined with us."

Pen Bonnar said thousands of hectares of land had been cleared in the province, adding that he believed high-ranking government officials were complicit in the effort.

"None of the illegal loggers have been arrested, but many people who tried to protest against the forest criminals were jailed," he said.

Chhouk Savath, a villager from a commune near Banlung, said he also believed the government had a hand in illegal logging and clearing operations.

He said he had been threatened by company representatives who told him the government would take his land if he protested illegal clearing.

"Many companies have violated our farmland by bulldozers," he said. "They said the government would confiscate our farmland and arrest us."

Protecting the land

In a second protest in Rattannakiri's O'Yadaw district, located along the Vietnamese border, Deputy Governor Mom Sareoun and 20 other local

officials joined about 200 villagers armed with wooden sticks and knives to protest the confiscation of a cashew plantation.

The protesters demanded that police and officials prevent a high-ranking Phnom Penh official from confiscating the land, said O'Yadaw Governor Dork Sar.

 "We succeeded to stop the action of police on Thursday morning," Dork Sar said. "We did not hit them with wooden sticks, but we have to protect our land."

He said the cashew plantation had belonged to an ethnic minority group for many generations.

But the official charged with attempting to confiscate the land, Kau Try, the director of Preah Ketomealea Hospital in Phnom Penh, said he bought the land legally and had allowed people to plant crops there on a temporary basis.

"But I do not confiscate their cashew plantations," he said.  

He said he first informed the villagers to stop planting crops on the farm in 2007.

"They continued to grow crops on my land and made a complaint in the provincial courts against me," he said.  "Now, they protest ... as a solution.''

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