The Kampong Chhnang provincial authority and forestry officials on Thursday stopped a group of people from clearing degraded forest where the government plans to replant trees and turn into a protected area in Samaki Meanchey district’s Kraing Lvea commune.
Four tractors were seized as evidence after the perpetrators fled the scene before police could apprehend them.
Provincial Forestry Administration director Thong Vanvira Vuthy said the court-approved crackdown followed a tip-off that seven of the 1,000ha forest in Kraing Lvea commune had been cleared for private ownership.
“They had already cleared 1ha when we arrived there. They escaped when they saw our cars. We tried to chase them but they managed to flee into the forest before we could detain them,” he said.
Vuthy said the four tractors were being detained at the Forestry Administration office in Kampong Tralach district and were pending further actions.
“According to the Forestry Law, we give the owner one month to come and settle the case."
“In case of a no-show, we will forward it to the court on state forest clearing charges, which can carry a prison sentence of up to five years,” Vuthy said.
He added that forest clearing stems from commune chiefs issuing invalid land titles to people without proper authorisation from their superiors.
“The encroachment on state land happens a lot now. Based on our observation, most [of the perpetrators] are from Preah Sihanouk and Kampong Speu provinces."
“They buy land in Kampong Chhnang province and then request titles from village and commune chiefs claiming they rightfully own the land,” he said.
Kraing Lvea commune chief Khlang Rei said the local authority normally issues land titles to people who have cultivated the land. Rei said he could not elaborate on the reports of forest clearing in the area as he had not made a field visit to the site to assess the events himself.
“Some people own land there, so land purchasing also take places. For the clearing, we don’t know if they had already asked for permission or not. We don’t know clearly who owns the [forest] clearing site. We’ll look into the issue and decide,” he said.
Sam Chankea, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said illegal forest clearing stems from lax law enforcement and impunity.
He said some perpetrators are able to repeat the offences because they are backed by the rich and powerful.
“Secondly, local authorities [village and commune chiefs] do not properly understand their duty concerning the issuance of land titles to individuals."
“They [wrongly] think they have the right to issue land titles in their area, so the higher authorities should advise them that it is not OK,” he said.
“Third, and most importantly, the higher-ups need to expedite land registration in order to distinguish between private and state land managed by the Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. They should clarify the issue, otherwise the rich and powerful will continue to grab [state] land,” he said.
Vuthy acknowledged that most forestland in Kampong Chhnang has not been registered.
Citing a lack of budget, he said forestland registration is also an issue in other provinces, though the government has issued a forest cover map since 2002 as a guideline.