At a Tuesday meeting with officials, the Ratanakkiri governor, and commune and district authorities, Minister of Environment Say Sam Al said land stealing is rampant and has not slowed down in the province.

Sam Al said local officials have been involved in several illegal land sales to various entities and stressed that measures preventing such actions must be stronger.

He said local authorities continued to sign illegal land titles even though they have been educated on the matter many times.

“Local authorities have to take part in protecting and conserving natural resources. They can’t cut trees, burn land or steal state land. They must not illegally request state land for culprits. [If they do so] they have to face the law without being forgiven,” he said.

Ratanakkiri provincial Department of Environment director Phon Khemarin said Sam Al’s assertion was a reminder to those who steal land in protected areas.

“I am sorry, but I cannot tell you the exact places where land stealing occurred. We are doing the job. We are working with the court,” he said.

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said many hectares of land in protected areas have been stolen. The ministry will take measures to build court cases and take back the land.

Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for Adhoc Din Khanny agreed with Sam Al’s assertions. Local authorities receive benefits for not preventing land stealing in protected areas, he said.

But Khanny thinks Sam Al’s request to strengthen measures is a bit late. Protected areas are already almost lost entirely, Khanny said.

Local authorities became careless and even threatened, sued and slandered activists trying to protect the land, he said.

“If the measures are taken from now on, there are at least some natural resources that remain. If it is like how Sam Al has mentioned, we can take back state land.

“Legally, officials who signed documents and those who occupied state land must receive the same punishment,” he said.

The Post was unable to reach provincial governor Thorng Savun on Wednesday.

There are six protected areas covering 893,594ha including Virachey National Park, O’Yadav National Park, Lum Phat Wildlife Sanctuary and Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the environment ministry.