More than 100 villagers locked in a long-standing land dispute with a wildlife NGO in Koh Kong province’s Mondol Seima district have submitted a complaint to the provincial governor, requesting their farmland be demarcated as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling project.
Nget Van, 55, a representative for the villagers, said they have been prevented from farming in the area since 2004 when environmental NGO Wildlife Alliance arrived and implemented a forestry program.
Mr. Van alleged that some homes were also burned down in 2004 in an attempt to push them off the protected land. “After that incident happened, we have been prevented from using and farming on the land we had cleared,” Mr. Van said.
In preparation for student volunteers to measure their land for titles, Nget Chanthea, 33, said village and district authorities had told villagers to make boundaries around their land, making it easier for students to demarcate it.
“That’s why my husband, Pang Heng, went to clear our farmland to build a boundary on May 1, but he was arrested the next morning by Wildlife Alliance and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces military soldiers,” Ms. Chanthea said. “We filed a complaint [on Wednesday] to seek help from Samdech Hun Sen to see if he can provide us poor people with land titles,” she added.
Wildlife Alliance technical rainforest manager Hort Sokun said the suspect, whose full name is Chea Sok Heng, was caught clearing land about 12 km from the village. “There is absolutely no house on the land, nor any houses around it. Therefore, the illegal clearing does not involve any other families, only Mr. Chea Sok Heng,” Mr. Sokun said.
While Mr. Hun Sen had previously said that volunteers would give titles specifically to families living in state forests, economic land concessions and former timber concessions, Mr. Sokun said that student volunteers are “not allowed” to measure within forests.
“What people are trying to do in the months preceding the elections is to grab as much land as possible because they hope that the government will be lenient, since elections are approaching and they think that they will end up getting the land.”
Mr. Heng was charged with clearing state forest and encroaching on land by Koh Kong Provincial Court last Friday, said provincial prison director Nguon Lay. He is currently in pretrial detention.
(Additional reporting by Dene-Hern Chen)