The Cambodian government has moved to protect a tract of land in Tbong Khmum province in a bid to preserve wildlife near the Vietnam border, but local villagers and the rights group Adhoc say the step will disenfranchise small-scale farmers.
In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen last week, a forest spanning 199 hectares in Ponhea Krek district was designated as a protected area for conserving forest and wildlife.
But local leaders Kim Ly, chief of Krek commune, and Hem Yieb, chief of Trapaing Phlong commune, cast doubt on the sub-decree, stressing there was not thick forest or substantial wildlife in the now-protected area.
“It is a kind of sparse woods. There are only . . . four or five big trees,” Yieb said.
“I think that the government wants to protect the area, but local people still have their doubts. They want to use that area for farming as they have before.”
He said 50 families would be affected, as they had lived and farmed the land since the French colonial era.
But Sok Touch, director of border research at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, told the Post he had requested the government conserve the area for the future.
“We saw the trees there were not big, just the size of our thighs. But the forest is thick with many varieties of good trees. In 10 years, those trees will grow up,” he said.
“The Vietnamese have a sanctuary on their side. So we should also protect our side as we have a lot of wildlife. It will become an eco-tourism [site] in the future.”
Neang Savath, the Tbong Khmum provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the sub-decree would be detrimental to local villagers’ farming practices and would permit powerful timber traders to continue deforestation.
“The sub-decree is like a cheque. If anyone has it, he can do whatever he wants,” Savath said.
“When there is such a law as this, the rich and the powerful will misuse the law. Then the villagers who carry the timber on bicycles, motorbikes, or by other small means will be arrested. But those who bring trees in 10-wheel trucks, no one will arrest them.”
Sok Touch disputed that claim, saying the sub-decree would prevent illegal logging and those who breached the law would be held accountable. “Anyone who dares to do that, they will be in jail. I will observe this area,” Touch said.