Villagers Allege Tycoon Burned Down Spirit Forest

Bunong villagers representing hundreds of families in Mondolkiri province’s O’Reang district have demanded a meeting today with officials after accusing men working for a CPP-linked tycoon of burning down a sacred forest.

“They burned and cleared our spirit forest,” said Peu Thy, 55, a resident of Pou Reng village. “We sacrificed there, and paid respects to our gods.”

Mr. Thy said he was in Phnom Penh when the clearing took place, but villagers brought him to the devastating scene upon his return a few days ago. The forest had been burned and an old home was left a smoldering ruin.

“There was not one plant left. The forest is gone,” he said, blaming the situation on tycoon An Mady and the local village chief. “They have destroyed the graves of two of our dead.”

The burned forestland is the latest escalation of a bitter land dispute in Dak Dam commune on the border with Vietnam, one that has pitted villagers against each other as tens of families sold off land even while others sought a community title.

With their chances for the title—and their hopes of preserving their spirit forest, farmland and the graves of their ancestors—diminished, Mr. Thy said he could no longer look the man who had encouraged the sell-off—the village chief himself—in the face.

The troubles started some months ago, Mr. Thy and local civil society workers said. Plong Seng, the village chief of Pou Reng, and two female associates began to approach the female residents of the village one by one, persuading them to sell their land.

Srey Neang, 26, a former resident of the village who works in development in Phnom Penh, said the trio pressured the residents, playing on their worries about the future.

“These women went from house to house, and the other women there trusted them,” she said. “They sold their land because these women said to them, ‘If you don’t sell it, some company will take it anyway.’”

Frederic Bourdier, an anthropologist working in the area, said the individual land purchases had been coordinated in order to amass a large land plot.

“It was an alliance between brokers,” he said. “External brokers, Khmer brokers, Bunong brokers. It was not only the village chief.”

The land grab may have been hastened by news that a community land title, which Pou Reng and its neighboring village Pou Leh had requested in 2012, was imminent, according to Mr. Thy.

Development and Partnership in Action, the NGO that supported their request, said the villagers’ ownership had been recognized by the Ministry of Interior, one of the intermediate steps in the long and grueling process to secure a land title.

Sok Ratha, a provincial correspondent for rights group Adhoc, said Pou Reng had been promised a title by year’s end, but the land dispute had fouled their chances, and it was uncertain now that it would ever happen.

“They still want the community land,” said Kong Am, program director of MVI, a network of European NGOs supporting the village. “But if they’ve sold the land off—well, how can they get it?”

Villagers saw the land as crucial to their ability to maintain their traditions—rotating their crops of upland rice through traditional fields, burying their dead in their ghost forest and making sacrifices to their forest gods in their now-burned forest.

Brokers played on their insecurities and questioned the value of these traditions, Mr. Thy said. “They said: What ethnic minority is this, that you’re a part of?…. You don’t know anything—you don’t know your own traditions. Sell your forest, and don’t fear the later times.”

Hoping for hundreds of dollars, tens of families sold their land, amounting to hundreds of hectares, for only $7.50 to $12.50 for each plot. This was distributed to them by the village chief’s nephew late last month, Mr. Thy said.

Mr. Thy said he believes Mr. Seng was selling community land to Mr. Mady, a tycoon who owns a rubber concession in the protected area of Beng Per, and who was accused by opposition lawmakers earlier this year of logging past the boundaries of another of his concessions in Virachey National Park.

“I learned that it was Oknha An Mady,” said Mr. Am of MVI, using an honorific reserved for those who have donated $100,000 or more to the ruling party.

Mr. Mady, vice president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Mr. Thy said he had spoken to a work manager on the site and was certain that Mr. Mady had bought at least some of the villagers’ land. “He purchased a large plot, just outside the village. They cleared it and burned it, but haven’t planted anything.”

Whether the village chief had also sold their spirit forest to Mr. Mady, and who was responsible for the burning, was uncertain. No one saw who set the fire in the forest outside the village, Mr. Thy said. He said the village chief, Mr. Seng, had recently fled and shut off his telephone.

Mr. Thy said he asked the village chief to join in a discussion with commune authorities two days ago, but that he remained unreachable. Calls to his phone on Wednesday went unanswered.

The commune chief first agreed to meet on Wednesday, then put off the meeting until today after 30 villagers arrived.

Nothing can bring back the spirit forest, or settle the gods that have been displaced, Mr. Thy said. The people now fear sickness and death. The spirits, ripped from their forest, need a sacrifice, one the poor village cannot afford, he said.

“We’ll ask from them $5,000, for the trees,” he said. “Then a water buffalo, two pigs and two jars of wine.”

The animals, should they receive them, would be symbolic, little more. The legal path is murky for those who don’t have titles or maps. Mr. Thy prepared a complaint to be sent to Adhoc and planned to demonstrate, he said, whether or not today’s mediation succeeds.

But he doesn’t hold out much hope.

“I don’t know if there’s a law or not,” he said. “But those who practice the law don’t respect it and don’t see it.”

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