A group of about 1,000 families living in Siem Reap province’s Phnom Kulen National Park will be relocated to prevent them from continuing an environmentally detrimental trend of clearing land, building homes, selling and repeating, the environment minister said on Thursday.
The villagers have “recently” taken up occupation in the park without land titles, invoking fear that they will destroy the popular tourist attraction—Kulen mountain has a waterfall, Angkorian temples and an ancient rusty-red laterite stone staircase—with their waste and continued resettlement, Say Sam Al said.
“We cannot allow these people to clear the forest for building houses or to take land to sell to someone else and then continue to grab other locations,” he said.
In addition to damaging the park’s environment through land clearing, the human waste produced by the park’s population has created an uninviting smell for visitors, he said.
“We will send a request to those people asking them to remove themselves from that area, and our provincial authorities will prepare a plot of land for them to stay at the base of the mountain,” he added.
He said the relocation decision was made on Wednesday during a two-day meeting in Siem Reap City organized by the Apsara Authority, the government body in charge of the park, and the International Coordination Committee (ICC), a U.N.-backed body hosting forums between archaeologists and other experts on how best to conserve the Angkor heritage site.
Mr. Sam Al did not have details on the community, but said they had settled “recently.” However, a commune chief said most families had begun settling there in 2009.
National and provincial authorities were working together to find a plot of land to relocate the community to “if they agree,” Mr. Sam Al said, adding that soldiers sent to live in the park to protect the area in the 1990s would also be relocated to military headquarters.
Apsara spokesman Long Kosal declined to comment. ICC representatives could not be reached for comment, but Unesco country director Anne Lemaistre has previously said, “We are very against illegal construction” in preserved territories.
According to Sous Sakhan, the deputy director of the park, the plan to relocate about 1,000 families across four villagers in the mountain’s Khnang Phnom commune was originally discussed a year ago. He said he had heard that it failed due to insufficient government funds for the relocation.
Deputy provincial governor Kim Chhay Eang said he had been instructed by Mr. Sam Al at the time to create an eviction plan, but that it had not yet been completed. His officials were still working with the ministry to determine a proper resettlement site, he said, adding that he did not know when this process would begin.
The majority of families in the commune had begun settling there in 2009, according to Chhoeum Taing, chief of Khnang Phnom commune in Svay Loeu district. Last year, 972 families were living there and the number had only increased, he said.
“I don’t know how many families will be evicted from the mountain, but the provincial authorities previously told me that people living around Preah Ang Thom will be removed,” he said, referring to a 17-meter reclining Buddha on the mountain.
Previously, Tbeng commune at the mountain’s base had been suggested as a relocation site, provincial Adhoc investigator Sous Narin said. But villagers had been adamantly opposed to the idea, he added.
“They will not agree to leave the mountain because there they can easily make money from tourism,” he said.
Nick Beresford, country director of the U.N. Development Program, who participated in the Siem Reap meetings, said his officials had been working with the government since early this year to draft a management plan that would consider environmental, biological, cultural, architectural and human needs within the park. He said it was due to be completed by the end of the year and that he was unaware of any plans to relocate villagers.
“What the ICC is effectively saying is if you have a protected structures and a sacred monument and a Unesco heritage site, you should take care of it. But it does involve sensitive issues where people have set up structures and so on,” Mr. Beresford said.
“No one wants to relocate the community,” he added. “If there are any talks of relocations, we would want them to be done sensitively and properly with assessments done beforehand.”
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)