Villagers in Banteay Meanchey province are awaiting a response from King Norodom Sihamoni to their appeal for ownership of 12,000 hectares of protected forest, commune officials said Tuesday.
But as the Environment Ministry argues that the villagers cannot own the land because it is in a protected area, the government has already agreed to lease to a private firm more than 1,700 hectares of the 46,000-hectare Banteay Chhmar protected landscape, according to documents obtained Monday.
Chouv Tav, commune councilor in Thma Puok district’s Komrou commune, said 3,397 families in three adjacent communes—his own, as well as Banteay Chhmar and Kouk Romiet—signed a petition Dec 12 seeking a social land concession from the King for land they say is mostly a farming and residential area.
“My villagers definitely need the land for farming and for their residential area because the area that we propose the King to grant us as a social land concession is not deep jungle or forest,” he said Tuesday.
However, in a Jan 22 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said the villagers could not own the land because much of it is either protected land or “community area.”
But in a Dec 9 letter to Mok Mareth, Council of Ministers Secretary of State Bun Uy states that the government has already approved to grant a 75-year lease on 1,783 hectares of the land in question to the private firm Leang Bou Construction Co.
Kouk Romiet commune councilor Yong Yoeun said the area was designated as protected land in 1993, but that nobody notified the villagers, who continued farming until 2002.
“We are seeking legal rights to own the land as we worry that our younger generation will not be able to use the farmland and live in the area in the future,” he said, adding that more than 400 families in his commune have been using about 1,000 hectares of the land as a rice field since before the Khmer Rouge era.
Neither Mok Mareth nor Bun Uy could be reached for comment.
Mam Chhay Chhan, deputy director of the provincial environment department and director of the Banteay Chhmar landscape, declined to comment on the villagers’ request or the lease to Leang Bou Construction, but said the government would honor any land concession ordered by King Sihamoni.