Ten villagers were briefly detained by Ream National Park rangers in Preah Sihanouk province on Wednesday and instructed to dismantle their tarpaulins from a conservation area.

Authorities said the villagers had secretly erected their tents there in order to illegally settle down and clear state forest for private ownership.

Samut Sothearith, the director of the provincial Environment Department, told The Post on Thursday that park rangers were patrolling the forest when they found the 10 villagers erecting tents illegally in the protected Tuol Tabin area.

He said the villagers were from Smach Daeng village in Prey Nop district’s Ream commune. They erected the tents two days earlier, aiming to clear the forest for farming.

“Our rangers did not arrest them because they had just entered the area and they complied with our instructions. They dismantled their tents and signed a written agreement promising they wouldn’t return to clear the forest again,” he said.

Heng Sitha, one of the 10 villagers, admitted to The Post on Thursday that he intended to clear the forest for farming. He said the area was fertile for growing tropical fruits like coconuts and mangoes.

He said the villagers entered the area on Sunday, erected the tents the following day and were planning to grow fruits and vegetables after seeing some recently planted crops.

“We acknowledged our activities were illegal. We left the area without resisting,” he said.

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said some villagers are paid by land dealers to encroach on state land and forests to seize it for private ownership. To that end, he said some people either illegally plant markers or burn the forest to make way for cash crops.

“Exploiting innocent villagers with the intention of grabbing state land is illegal and intolerable,” he said.