Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay continued to insist this week that disabled people are responsible for clearing land within the Angkor Wat protected area, but called the problem “exaggerated.”
A Ministry of Interior official, however, said the issue is critical, promised tough action and questioned how the disabled could possibly be to blame.
“How can handicapped people fell the trees if they have lost legs and arms?” asked Khieu Sopheak, Interior spokesman. He referred to a group of disabled people sent to live near Angkor Wat rather than beg in nearby Siem Reap.
About 10 percent of the 10,800 hectares of trees and vegetation in the area protected from development have been cleared gradually since last July, according to Chay Samith, the Environment Ministry’s acting director of conservation. He said “opportunists” who want to sell land to investors are the culprits, as well as some peasants trying to increase the size of their farms.
Toan Chay acknowledges there has been some clearing, but says it has occurred on a small scale and that the problem already has been resolved.
“In fact, it is true there was some forest clearing, but only two hectares of land were cleared,” he said Monday. “It is very exaggerated to say about 1,000 hectares of land were felled.”
Toan Chay blamed about 200 disabled people ordered to stay near the Unesco-designated World Heritage site.
“It is an eyesore to see them begging for survival in the city,” Toan Chay said. “So we sent them to the area, letting them eke out their living, but they cut down trees [instead].”
Toan Chay said provincial officials have solved the problem by relocating the disabled to an area outside the protected zone. He added that trees would be replanted in June.
Chay Samith said land-clearing in the area could damage the ancient temples. Without adequate tree and brush cover, the temples will be more exposed to wind and soil erosion.
“The provincial authorities seem to have no ability to stop [the tree cutting],” Chay Samith said, discounting Toan Chay’s claim as having resolved the problem. “In fact, it is not a joke, it is a historical area.”
If the cutting isn’t stopped, Chay Samith said his ministry will write the prime ministers.
Khieu Sopheak also apparently doesn’t think Toan Chay has solved the problem.
Khieu Sopheak promised “strict and tough action” to halt the cutting. He said the land-clearing threatens both the future of the temples and Cambodia’s tourism industry.
“This will assassinate the nation,” he said. “We cannot let the trees in that area be cut down.