Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday ordered the armed forces to crack down on land encroachment and illegal logging in one of Sihanoukville’s protected zones.
Rich and powerful people have cleared land in the hilly 6,202-hectare Kbal Chhay zone in Stung Haw and Prey Nop districts, Hun Sen said, threatening the freshwater reserve.
“The encroachment on Kbal Chhay area is very dangerous,” the prime minister said at a meeting with top Interior officials and provincial governors. “I would like to order the Interior and all armed forces to cooperate with the Agriculture Ministry to stop this controversy immediately. …Nobody can claim a piece of land in the Kbal Chhay area.”
Besides destroying the area’s ecology, government officials worry that increasing deforestation could threaten a proposed plan to build a reservoir to supply water to the coastal town.
“We have to maintain the Kbal Chhay zone or else we won’t have sufficient water to supply Sihanoukville” in the future, Hun Sen said.
Hun Sen warned violators to stop immediately or face possible legal action. He also ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to reforest areas that have been stripped of trees.
Kbal Chhay is not one of 23 areas protected by royal decree in 1993. But environmental officials said a subdecree calls for protection of the area as a freshwater preserve.
Sihanoukville First Deputy Governor Chhun Sirun estimated that dozens of land speculators have encroached upon the area, virtually all commercially valuable trees have been felled and that only about 20 percent of the reserve has not been damaged in some way.
He said that land speculators typically have hired villagers to clear land for $100 to $200 a hectare in hopes of selling the land to investors. Hundreds of huts have been built and poles have been erected to stake out areas.
Chhun Sirun said that Kbal Chay has been under threat since 1997 and that measures taken in the past have been ineffective. Now, he said, the area is at a critical juncture.
“If the forest is gone, fresh water will run out and development in Sihanoukville will be hindered,” he said.
Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng also vowed this week to crack down on the powerful officials and rich businessmen who are said to be behind the problem. “We have to take measures to stamp out land clearing,” he said.