Forested land at the heart of a dispute between villagers and a rubber company in Kratie province’s Snuol district has been illegally cleared by locals employed by “rich and powerful officials,” district governor Iv Saphum said on Thursday.
Villagers have recently lodged complaints with officials from Snuol district’s Khyoem commune, saying that Sovan Vuthy Rubber Company workers had illegally demolished their homes inside the company’s 7,251-hectare land concession.
Mr Saphum said the “rich and powerful” officials, who he declined to name or identify, were paying villagers $100 for every hectare of state forest they cleared within Sovan Vuthy’s concession, which is also inside the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary.
He claimed the officials were then having villagers illegally transfer the cleared land to them, with the authorization of commune officials who he said received $50 as a sweetener.
“Some villagers are clearing forest for land to sell for money,” Mr Saphum said. “Then, when we crack down on them, they blame the authorities for hurting them and grabbing their land. The commune chiefs don’t get much money from signing the [land transfer] documents, just $50 each time.”
Mr Saphum added that similar practices had taken place between 2005 and 2008, when the price of land skyrocketed in Cambodia, but the issue had resurfaced recently when Sovan Vuthy started clearing land for its rubber plantations.
Khyoem commune chief Nuon Sam Ath, however, denied ever authorizing the transfer of state forest land that is included in Sovan Vuthy’s concession. He said he only ever presided over legal land sales.
“When local villagers ask me to sign paperwork when they sell their farmland or residential houses, I cannot say no, but I have never been paid for doing so,” Mr Sam Ath said. “The fact is that my people here are being made victims of the land dispute with the rubber company. Their farmland is at risk of being grabbed by the development firm.”
Mom Run, a representative of the affected villagers, also dismissed Mr Saphum’s allegations, saying that locals never cleared the state forest in a bid to sell the land to a third party.
“When people protest, authorities and the company make up the accusations that forest is being cleared for land encroachment by poor people,” he said.
“We demand our land because we need to…protect it so our next generation can continue to make a living.”