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Officials probed for ‘land clearing’

Officials from the Ministry of Environment and the Kampong Speu Environment Department inspect land that was allegedly illegally sold inside the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary last month. Photo supplied
Officials from the Ministry of Environment and the Kampong Speu Environment Department inspect land that was allegedly illegally sold inside the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary last month. Photo supplied

Officials probed for ‘land clearing’

Six officials in Kampong Speu’s Oral district have been questioned by the provincial Environment Department over a case of “clearing, logging, burning and bulldozing forest land for private ownership” inside the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, officials said yesterday.

Those summoned for questioning included Oral district deputy police chiefs Prak Moul and Morm An, Tasal Commune Chief Dul Sokhum, Doung Village Chief Orn Kong, Trapang Thmea Village Chief Y Doem and Kammpes Village Chief Sorn Vong, according to a letter signed by Chheun Sothun, director of the Environment Department, dated on January 30, and obtained by The Post yesterday.

Sokhum confirmed that he and the other district officials had appeared for the interrogation, but denied that he was personally involved in the alleged clearing.

“The allegations on me are not right,” he said. “I did not clear or log [the land]. For the land preparation, I also don’t know.”

Sokhum said he had seen a map of the 2,000 hectares in question inside the sanctuary in Tasal commune, but denied the forest land had been illegally sold to private owners.

Contact information for the other five officials was not available yesterday. Kampong Speu Provincial Governor Vei Samnang said he had been called by a villager who tipped him off to the alleged crime, and had ordered environmental officials and other relevant authorities to inspect the area.

The inspection found that 2,000 hectares in the forest had been sold and that clearing had already begun, he added. However, when officials arrived for the inspection, the suspects had already fled, leaving behind materials for building huts.

“We wanted to seize a tractor and an excavator, but they knew [about the inspection] in advance, so they escaped into the forest,” he said.

Environmental officials will continue to look into the map of the sold land – whose origins are still unknown – in order to determine the exact number of hectares sold so authorities can retake control of them, Samnang said.

Sothun, director of the Environment Department, confirmed having questioned the six officials and inspected the disputed area, but said only half of one hectare had already been cleared.

Buth Bunthoeun, Oral district police chief, also confirmed his two deputies had been questioned.

“At [our] weekly or monthly meetings, I always advise and warn my officials from [being] involved [in] any crimes, but sometimes they do not follow my advice,” he said.

Chea Hean, director of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Preservation Organization in Kampong Speu, claimed a military official had colluded with the deputy police chiefs to gather 200 families to occupy the land between 2014 and 2015, paying them $250 to $300 each.

Local authorities then allegedly issued documents of ownership to the families, who in turn sold it to brokers, who then sold it on to other traders.

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