Sihanoukville Municipal Court has charged seven farmers with illegally clearing more than 10 hectares of protected mangrove forest in Prey Nob district, officials said Monday.
Officials from the municipal agriculture department’s fisheries office arrested the seven on Feb 11 as they were allegedly clearing the mangrove forest in Andoung Thmor commune to use for farm land, said fisheries office chief Duong Sam Ath.
“They have been charged with destroying more than 10 hectares,” said Deputy Prosecutor Chhun Ngorn, adding that they were charged the same day. “The court charged them at the fisheries office’s request,” he said.
An investigating judge has been assigned to the case, he said, and the accused are now in pre-trial detention.
High-ranking government officials hire locals at between $24 and $37 to cut down the forest, which is a crucial spawning ground for fish, Duong Sam Ath said. He declined to identify the officials.
The fisheries office has so far only been able to make low-level arrests, he added.
People are frequently told not destroy the protected forests, Duong Sam Ath said. “We often educate them but still they continue.”
His office fears the mangrove forest, which acts as a natural barrier to sea winds, could be lost altogether if strong actions are not taken.
Prey Nob Deputy Governor Nob Phean agreed.
“We already have land for farming,” he said. “But they still clear the protected forest. It will be a disaster if we don’t stop it.”
Por Try, Ministry of Agriculture secretary of state, said the ministry is working hard to protect both salt- and freshwater flooded forests.
“We’re working with the Justice Ministry on this issue. These are natural resources nobody can encroach on. These are state lands,” he said. “If we don’t protect them, where will the fish spawn?”