Kampot provincial authorities reversed themselves this week, returning 72 hectares of coastal fish spawning grounds in a Kampot district mangrove forest to 640 families who said it had been illegally deeded to four local officials.
In a letter dated Wednesday and obtained Thursday, Provincial Governor Thach Korn said the land was being returned to the villagers’ care “as state land.”
Thach Korn said he was too busy to talk to a reporter Thursday. Villager representative Sok Kao said villagers were heartened by the news but still felt insecure.
“The letter is not an official directive, so we are still concerned that the mangroves can still be grabbed,” he said. “We just believe it 50 percent.”
The Council of Ministers in April ordered that the land be given to provincial agriculture officials Khim Bunna, Iv Chan, Siang Sothea and Sim Samen, a decision also endorsed that month by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Despite villager protests in Konsat commune, provincial officials originally said the four men were the land’s rightful owners.
But Fisheries Administration Director Nao Thuok said by telephone from Kampot on Thursday that he was meeting with villagers to assist them in securing access to the mangroves and that the April directive would be canceled.
“Firstly, we’re seeing how to help people get the land back legally,” he said.
Try Chhuon, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said Thursday that the reversal had been a question of honor.
“They, the provincial authorities, wanted to clear their names, that they are not involved in the mangrove land anymore,” she said.
Under the 2001 Land Law, “state public land,” including property of natural origin, such as lakes, rivers and seashores, cannot be sold or bought.
“No one can conspire to grab state land,” Try Chhuon said.