The clearing of more than 100 hectares of disputed land in Ratanakkiri province has been halted until ownership issues between a local businessman and Tampuon ethnic minority villagers have been resolved, police said Wednesday.
Work was stopped after 50 laborers were sent by businessman Um Rin to clear the 108 hectares of land in Bokeo district in preparation for a rubber plantation, but 278 Tampuon families in Lung Khung commune claim the land is theirs.
Chhou Tavath, a representative of the families, said that one fifth of the land is a cashew plantation, while the remainder is community forest that was shared between the families and another group of villagers in neighboring Soeung commune.
A separate group of villagers, however, in Yem Village, Soeung commune sold the land illegally to Um Rin for $50,000, Chhou Tavath alleged.
“If there was no green light from the commune and district chief, those villagers would not have been able to thumbprint [agreements] to sell the land,” he said.
Complaints were filed in December with authorities and local rights group Adhoc, he added.
Deputy provincial police chief Hor Ang confirmed Wednesday he had ordered his officers to investigate the case and to determine who owns the land.
“It is a very complicated case,” he said.
Hor Ang said he would question Bokeo district officials and other local authorities over the complaints by the Tampuon villagers that they facilitated the allegedly illegal sale.
Soeung commune chief Romas Than declined comment Wednesday, while Bokeo District Governor Khum Sakhorn and Um Rin could not be reached.
Ratanakkiri coordinator for Adhoc Pen Bonnar lamented the culture of village and commune chiefs receiving commission for encouraging locals to sell community land, which should not be sold.
“[L]ocal authorities can earn a lot of money [in this way], but the villagers are the ones who get punished in the end,” he said.