The previous government’s directive to address flooding in the forested areas of Tonle Sap Lake established various standards and redefined zones. Nevertheless, there remains unfinished work, necessitating the incumbent government’s involvement on tasks such as land registration, mapping and precise border demarcation.

In advancing these efforts, the Tonle Sap Authority (TSA) is collaborating with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. Together, they are verifying data for registration and mapping, and integrating this data into digital systems for enhanced management through the use of drones.

At the closing ceremony of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ 2023 annual review meeting on January 30, Prime Minister Hun Manet called upon all relevant institutions to participate in the effort.

He emphasised that the initiative is vital to ensure accuracy, sustainability and efficiency in preventing further land encroachment. 

The premier highlighted the need for precise identification of target populations to thwart opportunists.

He indicated that, in the future, traditional boat patrols might be greatly reduced, being supplanted by drone technology for aerial surveillance.

Manet said the TSA and other responsible entities must adopt new technologies for long-term clarity and effective administration and sustainability, entailing clear boundary demarcation, marker installation, the establishment of regulations and technical integration.

“A drone flies according to standards; it immediately signals red where standards are not met. Currently, currently, we lack clear data [to feed the drones],” he said, without elaborating.

Regarding efficiency, Manet stressed the need for a concerted effort from all relevant authorities to safeguard the lake as a national asset. Concerning the implementation of the work, he declared that he would immediately adopt the “five approaches” method if administrative discipline and responsibility were found lacking.

The five approaches Manet referred to are encapsulated by former Prime Minister Hun Sen’s anti-corruption slogan, “Look in the mirror, take a bath, clean the body, get treatment and undergo surgery”.

“I don’t want to resort to the fifth approach, but I will if compelled. Leadership in administration demands discipline. If that’s absent and tasks remain unfulfilled, I will act decisively. I may not speak much on it, but I will use the power of the pen,” he stated. 

Thor Chetha, minister of Water Resources and Meteorology and chairman of the TSA, emphasised the importance of stringent long-term measures for protecting the flooded forests around the lake. 

Following the prime minister’s encouragement and guidance, the authority is now actively collaborating with relevant ministries and institutions.

“[TSA] is working closely with the land management ministry, the Fisheries Administration [FiA] and local authorities on these registrations and we expect to see results soon,” Chetha stated. 

TSA deputy chief Hel Tony explained that the current focus at the local level involves verifying existing and related data of the demarcated area. 

He said this aims to facilitate mapping for digital integration, enabling management without the direct need for law enforcement presence to identify offenders.

He mentioned that the team is refining the map to create new zones, as directed by the prime minister during the agriculture ministry’s annual meeting. 

“We have verified and are now working on updating the map to clearly define the new zones,” he added.

He clarified that the verification for the new map extends beyond just Google Maps-like satellite views. It involves using new applications and professional mapping techniques to ensure clarity and avoid overlaps in the management area. 

However, he noted that the exact size of these locations on the new map is yet to be determined and will only be clear after the map is finalised and the areas are re-demarcated.

Provincial admins report progress

Battambang provincial deputy governor Soeum Bunrith reported that the provincial authorities are currently establishing systematic land demarcation zones in four districts of the province adjacent to the lake. 

These include Moung Russey, Sangke, Ek Phnom and Thma Koul districts. Additionally, the provincial authorities are advising landowners in these zones to declare their land and set up border posts for official measurement and standardisation.

“We cannot currently measure areas deep in Zone 3. However, according to the government’s policy, Zone 1 allows for land ownership, while Zone 2 does not, as it is state land and cannot be sold. This we can measure,” he said.

Bunrith explained that the TSA is verifying standard data as per the newly revised sub-decree. He said the approach will simplify locating illegal logging or land grabbing sites in the future, eliminating the need for law enforcement personnel to physically visit the sites.

“In the future, we’ll be able to pinpoint land grabbing locations simply by deploying drones. Currently, due to the lack of integrated data and modern technology, cracking down on such crimes necessitates the direct involvement of law enforcement forces” he added.

Pursat provincial governor Khoy Rida revealed that over 3,000ha in the lake area of the province are set to be demarcated. 

He noted that 28 villages across three districts – Krakor, Kandieng and Bakan – require measurement and verification.

“I can’t say exactly how many villages we’ve covered so far. Last week we made considerable progress, but we’re not halfway through yet. There’s a lot more to do. The work is slow because zones 2 and 3 are floodlands, so we have to wait for the water to recede before continuing,” he explained.

The governor added that concerted efforts by specialists, authorities and the community are being made to protect and conserve Zone 3 of the flooded forest, ensuring minimal impact.

Kampong Chhnang provincial governor Sun Sovannarith stated that over 70,000ha of land in Zone 3 for the province have been registered with the water resources ministry since 2021. He said the boundaries of the zone have already been demarcated and signs erected.

“Since 2021, deforestation and land grabbing in Zone 3 have ceased. We established five light units to protect all confiscated land in [the zone]. This year, however, the government has allowed temporary farming in the area,” he stated.

Sovannarith added that any new encroachments would be met with strict law enforcement, noting that contracts with tractor drivers had been made to prevent ploughing on new land.

In a separate statement, Sok Hay, deputy governor and spokesman for the Kampong Thom provincial administration, mentioned that systematic land registration began in mid-February. 

He noted that some town and district authorities had already conducted outreach meetings to prepare the public for collaboration with professional officers in surveying. 

“In six towns and districts, we’re demarcating more than 30,000ha of land in Zone 2,” he said.