Villagers in Banteay Meanchey province are facing an uphill battle in their effort to turn 200 hectares of unused RCAF land into a protected forest and wildlife area.
More than 1,500 families from Phkoam commune in Svay Chek district petitioned provincial authorities on June 11 asking that the vacant land, which RCAF Division 11 used as a military base until 2003, be listed as a protected area, commune chief Heng Paut said Tuesday.
“We want larger grassland and forestland so we can gain the benefits from conserving the forest, wildlife and the whole environment,” he said, adding that the villagers would also be able to use the land as a grazing area for their cattle.
Banteay Meanchey Governor An Sum said Tuesday that he considered the petition, but found that despite RCAF having vacated the area four years ago, turning the area into a protected zone was impossible as it is still owned by the Ministry of Defense.
An Sum said that he has called on RCAF officials to explain to the villagers why the area is still needed by the military.
“The military should meet with the villagers to offer an explanation as to why they want to keep that land,” he said.
Seng Soeun, deputy chief of Phkoam commune, said that the villagers would welcome the military back into the area as long as they don’t start clearing the land, which they fear will happen.
So Chan Heng, RCAF Division 11 commander, said Tuesday that the land, located about 70 km from the Thai border, is strategically important and losing the land will adversely affect the nation’s security.
“We respect the value of forest conservation, but the value of national defense is also important,” he said, but declined to explain the territory’s strategic importance.