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A sub-decree signed last year granted more than 260 hectares of protected land to 41 military families, local people try to take it back
PHNOM PENH – Udom Sre Pus Forest community, from Kampong Speu province, filed a petition calling for the intervention of the Ministry of Land Management against military families who have been clearing community forestland and harming the local wildlife.
Soy Sat, a 71-year-old resident at Pou Meas commune, Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, said about 700 people gathered in front of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction on May 9. They submitted a petition complaining about the encroachment and deforestation in Udom Sre Pus Community Forest, caused by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).
The petition asks the Ministry of Land Management to discontinue the encroaching and forest clearing by the armed forces; allow local people to enter and enjoy the forest; and withdraw the sub-decree granting the forest land to the soldiers, he said.
Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 23, 2021, some RCAF soldiers came to the area and started clearing Udom Sre Pus Community Forest, also known as the Metta Nature Forest, near the hamlet of Pou Meas, in Trapeang Chour commune, Oral district, Kampong Speu province.
They were bearing a sub-decree issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Aug. 20, 2021, granting 262.24 hectares of forest to 41 families, of which at least 12 belong to the military. The size of the granted area accounts for more than 10 percent of the 2,400 hectares of the Udom Sre Pus Forest community.
In the following days after the sub-decree was signed, Sat saw only two families collecting their plots and starting to cut down trees, flashing the red lights on what the forest could become if the remaining families would come and start clearing the land.
“That’s why the community has been trying to prevent the land encroachment from happening,” he said.
Sat added that the ministry accepted their petition and told the community they would respond to it and arrange a meeting with them within two weeks.
However, community representatives said they were not going to wait that long before attempting another action. They plan to come back within an 11-day period and start camping in front of the ministry, to pressure the relevant ministries and solve the issue prior to the commune elections on June 5, he said.
“The forest is gradually vanishing, so we will not let it happen and wait until the forest is completely gone,” Sat said.
The Pou Meas’ commune long-time resident added that the community had already requested the ministry to solve this issue twice, after having tried to find solutions many times from the district and provincial authorities. But to no avail so far.
Instead, they were labeled as people of a “color revolution”, a broad term regularly used by government officials to describe critical voices who allegedly want to oppose the authorities.
“We are not opposing the government,” Sat said. “But we are going against those who are encroaching our land. We want the sub-decree to be removed and the forest to be preserved for the common interest.”
Another similar case ongoing for 13 years
Khorn Sarith, a 41-year-old resident of Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, said the ministry told the community it will expedite the solution to their issue. However, he has little hope any change will actually happen.
“I don’t think they have any real willingness to solve the problem, as it is not the first time we face such issues,” he said.
In 2009, in the same area, the forest sanctuary was already privatized by the government and given to the Chinese sugarcane company HLH Group who began clearing the land. Despite countless actions to get their land back, or be granted a proper compensation for their loss, the dispute is still unsolved, said Sarith.
In the current case, opposing the military families and the local community, the ministry will order the provincial authorities to prevent loggings, Sarith added, citing the ministry’s claim during their petition submission.
Despite its requests, Cambodianess couldn’t get direct comments from government officials or local authorities. Seng Loth, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction, could not be reached for comments.
Kampong Speu province Governor Vei Samnang and Deputy Provincial Governor Long Bonareth could not be reached for comments.
Keo Kuchsy, Kampong Speu provincial administrative director, said he did not clearly know the root cause of the issue, asking the reporter to refer to another expertized authority.
Bun Sambath, a provincial inter-sectoral director, said the forestland granted to RCAF soldiers doesn’t belong to the people of Udom Sre Pus community, adding that they protest without any evidence.
Before granting the land to the military families, the expert authorities have clearly and thoroughly studied the area, he said.
“We, the expert authorities, won’t let any deforestation, which harms the forest, happen. We always crackdown on such crime,” Sambath said.
Violence and intimidation
But in Metta Nature Forest, tension is rising between local communities and the military families involved in the land clearing. Khorn Sarith, from Oral’s district, said that the armed forces were carrying daggers when they first came and are now used to carrying guns, sometimes triggering in the air to scare the community. Local people could hear gunshots at noon and during nighttime, he said.
“When we came to confront them, while they were deforesting, some of us were hit and wounded,” Sarith said. “They started using violence and chasing us away. Then they showed the guns to scare us.”
“We did not dare get close when we heard the gunshots,” he added.
The RCAF soldiers hired non-local people to log the timber while they were guarding the forest and preventing the community from entering the forest to avoid obstructing their activities, Sarith said.
“They logged all types of trees and they transported the timber like a parade,” he said.
Not only in the forest, intimidation also occurs at the judicial level. In November 2021, six village representatives, including Khorn Sarith and Soy Sat, were arrested for vandalism, public intimidation, and public insult. A few weeks earlier, they disrupted the soldiers’ forest clearing activities, leading to a surge of violence and arrests among the community.
The six villagers were released in early December 2021, but their case is still pending. “I’m not scared of being killed or accused by the court because what I’m doing is not only for myself but for my family and community,” Sat said. “This forest is for the nation and Cambodian people as a whole.”
Khorn Sarith also requested the government to preserve the forest for the common interest, the people, the next generation, and for preserving the rich local biodiversity. Udom Sre Pus Community Forest, is inhabited by peacocks, gibbons, monkeys, bears, wild chickens, wild roosters, geese, wild pigs, wild boars, bantengs, and many wild bird species
The community forest used to cover more than 2,000 hectares, but now only 887 hectares of community land remains, according to Soy Sat.