Authorities cracked down on a wetland clearing operation within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve in Kampong Chhnang’s Boribor district on Wednesday, seizing two bulldozers and questioning six operators and the machinery’s owner, before immediately releasing them with a warning.
District Governor Khuon Saorom on Thursday said that Chhnok Trou commune officials spotted the bulldozers clearing flooded forest within the so called “transition zone” of the Unesco designated conservation zone.
“They invaded and bulldozed the protected wetland for about 250 square metres in an attempt to expand a rice field,” said Saorom, who identified the owner of the machinery as Sar Bun Thoeun, a local farmer.
Saorom called upon district Military Police, who intervened and impounded Thoeun’s machinery at their station. However, he added, the bulldozers were released on the orders of the provincial Military Police chief the same day, after the Military Police questioned Thoeun and the six workers, who were also let go.
“They acted . . . to release them without informing me, so [they] consider me as a scarecrow,” he said, adding that he is seeking an explanation from the district Military Police commander, Kit Kunthea.
Kunthea declined to comment, saying he was busy at a housewarming party.
Provincial Military Police Commander Sak Sarang confirmed the release orders, saying the operators and Thoeun were unaware of the land’s status as a conservation area and noting the affected area was “small”.
“They are just simple villagers, and the cleared wetland is small, with some grass and bushes, not thick flooded forest. So we educated them and made them sign a contract, not to repeat it again, or we will take legal action,” Sarang said.
The Protected Areas Law stipulates a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $37,500 for land clearing.
The destruction of wetlands around the Tonle Sap lake to gain access to fertile soil for cultivation is a longstanding problem, which Environment Minister Say Samal has called his “biggest headache”.
Earlier this week, authorities in Siem Reap province intercepted nine pieces of machinery and seven operators who cleared 1 hectare of protected wetland near a bird sanctuary. No legal action has been taken against the machinery owner in that case, a businessman named Hak Seng.
Nuon Mony, the Siem Reap Provincial environment director, noted the variety of ministries involved in the case, saying action may be taken pending the completion of a joint report.