Nearly 900 families in Oddar Meanchey province are petitioning authorities to intervene in what they say is a military land grab of thousands of hectares of community forest.
Keut Mab, a representative of the Andong Bor forest community in Beng commune, claims Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers have been whittling away at the registered community forest’s 6,000 hectares ever since arriving in the area in 2011.
“The clearing is ongoing. All of the forestland is almost gone. Only about 10 percent remains intact,” Mab said.
In a letter sent to the provincial Agriculture Department, the community accuses local, commune and district authorities of colluding to clear the forest which was registered with the Agriculture Ministry in 2008.
Banteay Ampil District Governor Hang Meng declined to comment yesterday.
Soth Sisokheng, provincial Agriculture Department director, said he asked forestry officials to investigate but added that forestry officials could not inspect the military base because it was “related to the secret location of the military and the defence of national security”.
Ten out of the 13 community forests in Oddar Meanchey are embroiled in land disputes, according to Sisokheng.
Sorn Sea, commander of Brigade 4, implicated in the land grab, maintained the brigade had permission from the government to build in the forest.
“The forest belongs to the state, and the troops belong to the state as well,” Sea said. “The base is located here in the forest with the purpose of defending the territory.”
He said his unit had constructed 200 houses and given each family 1 hectare of land.
Mab, however, said soldiers had gradually taken up at least 1,600 hectares of land on which they were building houses, planting cassava and renting to others.
“The soldiers kept clearing the community forestland, but we could not stop them,” Mab said.
He said that due to population growth, another 3,000 hectares of forest were cleared by other villagers for growing cassava and constructing businesses and warehouses. In 2015, two Chinese companies also built quarries, according to Mab.
He expressed concern that the forest’s nearly 900 families would have no wood for firewood or construction in the future.