Though the government has pursued a policy in recent years of commercializing an increasing share of its conservation areas in Siem Reap province, officials have reclaimed 50,000 hectares of state forest that had suffered illegal encroachment in the past five years.
But authorities there report that preventing this land from again being settled or sold has been a challenge and policies of preventing encroachment by villagers have sometimes been criticized as heavy-handed.
According to deputy provincial governor Bun Tharith, roughly 30 percent of the reclaimed land throughout the province has been reforested since the start of a 2006 program to prevent illegal clearances.
Holding on to the rest has been a headache, he said.
“Although we successfully seized back the cleared land based on the 2002 forest coverage map and have been able to reforest the cleared land, illegal land encroachment and land grabs on the seized land still continue from newcomers from other provinces,” said Mr Tharith.
He said that during a field trip to meet with villagers in Kompong Cham province’s Stung Trang district, he had learned that hundreds of local residents were being encouraged by a village chief to pay 70,000 riel, or about $17.50, for a plot of land somewhere in Siem Reap being offered by an unnamed local NGO.
“This is sufficient proof that innocent villagers from other provinces are being scammed to grab the state’s forestland,” said Mr Tharith. The deputy governor added that previous cases of encroachment involved some powerful people but the latest encroachment was by ordinary villagers incited by a few individuals.
Thousands of hectares of cleared forest in Banteay Srei and Prasat Bakorng districts were among the land confiscated in 2006.
Suor Hay, division chief for the Forestry Administration in Banteay Srei district, echoed the Mr Tharith’s account and said halting the land grabs had been difficult.
“To enforce the law of confiscating the illegally cleared forestland is so difficult to perform,” he said. “Protecting these confiscated lands is even more difficult.”
Provincial authorities issued more than 10 directives to confiscate a total of 14,000 hectares of forestland illegally cleared before 2006 in Banteay Srey district, according to Mr Hay. More than half of that has been successfully seized and entered into the reforestation program, he said.
Elsewhere, results have been different.
In February, Siem Reap Provincial Court convicted seven villagers of clearing state-owned forest in Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune, sentencing them each to four-year suspended jail terms and ordering them to pay penalties of $2,500. Seven other villagers in the case were acquitted.
The case was brought in May 2010 by local forestry officials who alleged that 14 villagers in Tbeng commune had felled trees in an area used for a reforestation project.
The suspects said at the time that the clearing had been done by the forestry officials themselves.
Keo Sophy, wife of one of the convicted villagers, said yesterday that the conviction of her husband, Nith Yi, had been hypocritical. Powerful officials who clear thousands of hectares of state forest are rarely arrested or charged, she said.
Chhim Savuth, project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which has monitored the case, said yesterday that he supported the government’s move to confiscate illegally cleared forestland but not the selective application of the law.
“We strongly support the government’s mechanism in confiscating the illegally cleared land but we’ve noticed the practical implication is just to confiscate land from the poor. That is not acceptable…while mass illegally forest clearances committed by the rich and powerful still exist,” he said.