Three wildlife conservation officials and a commune chief in Banteay Meanchey province were taken hostage Monday morning by a mob of villagers and rice farmers demanding land rights within a nearby wildlife preserve.
The group of hatchet-wielding and stick-toting villagers released the four officials later the same morning. And even though at least one Cambodian official was roughed up in the process, conservationists said Tuesday they understood the frustrations of people who faced a loss of land due to protection measures.
“It was frightening, there was no doubt about it,” said Guy Marris, country program coordinator for the International Crane Conservation Fund, the wildlife conservation group that helps the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry manage the Trapaing Thmar Conservation Reservoir.
The wildlife refuge is a 10,000-hectare parcel of land surrounding a reservoir built during the Khmer Rouge regime. It became protected in November 1999 because it houses a variety of rare birds and other wildlife.
Trouble for the conservation officials began at midnight Sunday.
About 250 marchers, some of them drunk, streamed in front of the house where forestry staff members live and work.
“You could smell the whiskey in the air,” Marris said.
The mob began chanting, claiming the rare Sarus cranes living on the reservoir were taking away their rice fields.
But the protest didn’t turn violent until the demonstrators returned the next morning.
“It was becoming a very tense situation,” Marris said.
After the group marched in front of the house, a smaller group broke off and “started to spill into the compound of the house,” Marris said. They stripped the guns from police inside the house and smashed everything in their way.
Marris and another ICCF worker, Jeb Barzen, retreated to a back room. “A couple of people tried to bash in the door,” Marris said. Soon thereafter the mob forced the four hostages onto the back of a tractor and drove them to the office of the district governor.
Marris and Barzen returned to Phnom Penh Monday. The two said Tuesday afternoon they were unsure what caused the demonstration to turn violent. It could have been the result of rice farmers angry over the fact they would inevitably lose their land to the wildlife refuge. Or it could have been something else.
“We don’t actually know what caused the demonstration,” said Barzen, director of field ecology for ICCF. But, he admitted, “villagers have a legitimate fear that they might lose their land.”
The area surrounding the protected reservoir wasn’t free from civil war until 1998. It was then that the area was found to be home to some of the world’s most endangered birds. At the same time, farmers were moving into the area and often illegally grabbing land.
Although the goal of the government has been to phase out land use within the reserve, farming has increased. Of the 12,650 hectares on the sanctuary, 7,675 are being farmed. That number has grown steadily since the area was protected in 1999.
Nhan Bunthorn is the program officer of Trapaing Thmar Conservation Reservoir and works for the Forestry Department.
He was “beaten up” by the mob on Monday, both Marris and Barzen said.
Nhan Bunthorn said by telephone on Tuesday that the villagers probably wanted land titles within the refuge. Farmers using the land within the protected area have been asked to sign contracts not to cut down trees, burn the forest or hunt.
“But they refused to do so,” he said.
Marris and Barzen said that Monday’s attack will not dissuade ICCF from returning to the villages that surround the Trapaing Thmar reservoir. If anything, they agreed, the attack was evidence that much more work was needed in the region.
Violence against conservationists can occur, especially when they are “dealing with peoples’ livelihoods,” said Colin Poole, country program coordinator with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
When wildlife protection agencies are tromping around the wilds of Cambodia and in other far-flung regions, security is always a concern.
“Everybody working in remote areas in Cambodia is worried about security,” Poole said.
“We’ve had problems,” he said, but have never had anyone kidnapped. “It’s a lot less of a problem that it was five or six years ago.”