Dozens of masked farmers stormed a community forestry monitoring office in Mondolkiri province and burned it to the ground in what officials on Friday said they suspected was retaliation for being prevented from growing cassava in a protected area.
Around 60 people, most with scarves covering their faces, confronted a park ranger outside an office overseeing the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, before setting the building alight on Thursday, said Kong Sotheara, the sanctuary’s project manager.
The group, which included women, was angry after they had been stopped by local authorities from farming in the protected area in Keo Seima district’s Sre Preah commune, he said on Friday.
“Some of them demanded that they were allowed to clear forestland to grow cassava while others burned [the building] down,” he said.
Once the building was ablaze, the group scattered and made their getaway on motorbikes, he said. No one was injured in the fire.
Commune chief Pyeu Pe said the building, a wooden structure with a corrugated-tin roof, was erected in 2015 with the intention to curb the clearing of the forest.
“As far as I know, about 40 men on 25 motorbikes arrived and began burning it down,” Mr. Pe said, adding that he did not know the identity of the suspected arsonists. It was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy in the number of people involved in the incident.
However, he said families from Kompong Cham, Kratie and Prey Veng provinces had began moving to the area in 2013 and had been attempting to illegally clear forest for farming.
The roughly 300 new families were making the task of preventing deforestation increasingly difficult for the Bunong ethnic minority group who have lived on the land for generations, said Mr. Pe, himself a Bunong.
“Our Bunong rely on the forest and when the forest is gone, it is quite hard for us to live on,” he said.
Commune police chief Pen Bunroeun said he was investigating the case, but was as yet unsure who was responsible.