Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Koh Kong’s Chorng Indigenous People Struggle With Arrests and Lawsuits in REDD+ Zone

An environment officer, military police and a foreigner came to arrest Pork Nget at his rotational farm in Koh Kong province’s Thmar Baing district on June 27, 2024. (Supplied from community)
An environment officer, military police and a foreigner came to arrest Pork Nget at his rotational farm in Koh Kong province’s Thmar Baing district on June 27, 2024. (Supplied from community)

Chorng indigenous people continue to face arrests and lawsuits after carrying out rotational farming on the land which do not have clear protected and REDD+ boundaries yet.

The indigenous community, who live around Cardamom Mountain National Park, experienced difficulties obtaining forest products or practicing rotational farming near their village as they have been informed that those areas are in the REDD+ zone, although there was no clear boundary. 

On June 27, 43-year-old farmer Pork Nget from Prek Svay village, Thmar Dounpov commune, Thmarr Baing district in Koh Kong province, was arrested at his rice farm, about three kilometers from his village. He was sent to Koh Kong prison the next day and has been placed in pretrial detention.

Nget, a Chorng indigenous, was accused of encroaching and clearing forest land for “land ownership” in a protected area of Cardamom Mountain National Park. 

Community representative Mong Mon told CamboJA News that three Wildlife Alliance staff including a foreigner, an environmental official and a Royal Gendarmerie officer, arrested Nget in his farm. 

He said Nget did not clear any forest land. He has been planting rice on his rotational farm since 2013 after the land was measured by the government for land registration and titling under the Order No. 01 framework.

The Wildlife Alliance staff told Mon that the land was part of the REDD+ zone but the community rep said the demarcation only came into existence after the framework. 

“When REDD+ came into being, we did not know the boundaries. We have been planting on our land for a long time,” he said. “He [Nget] didn’t know that the land was within their land [REDD+]. Who knows where the border is? We cannot determine it.” 

On June 5, there was a meeting with Wildlife Alliance where it was said that if the land belonged to the Chorng community for rotational farming, the organization would not bar the community from planting there. However, when the people farmed in that area, they were arrested, Mon lamented.

He alleged that Wildlife Alliance also “persecuted” the indigenous community by demolishing their huts in the farm. The Chorng indigenous people often suffered as they were barred by Wildlife Alliance from farming the land which had unclear zoning. 

“They [Wildlife Alliance] do not respect the rights of Chorng indigenous people, who conduct rotational farming,” he said. “Before arresting [Nget], please put up a sign to show where the border is so that he [Nget] knows.” 

Nget’s wife, Chey Noa, a mother of two, said her family has been planting rice on half a hectare of land since 2012. The land was measured on the land registry based on the Order No. 01 framework. 

She was there when her husband was arrested. The Royal Gendarmerie told her that they were taking him to “sign a contract to stop planting on that land”. Instead, he was sent to prison the next day. 

Noa said she did not know that the land was under the REDD+ zone because there was no boundary to inform people. The Wildlife Alliance also never told her. 

“I am doing this because I want rice. I don’t want the land. I only want to plant because I don’t have enough rice to eat,” she said. “They [Wildlife Alliance] haven’t decided where exactly the [REDD+ boundary] is, so it is difficult.” 

Cheang Thorn, commune chief of Thmar Dounpov, said he does not know the exact reason why Nget was arrested as Wildlife Alliance was “the one working on it”.

Thorn said usually, the “first arrest” was to “sign an agreement”. The “second arrest” was to advise them to stop, and the third time, they would be sent to court. However, this time, “they suddenly sent him to prison”, so he does not know what happened. 

“It is hard to understand [all this] because the NGO [Wildlife Alliance Cambodia] does not collaborate with the authorities,” he remarked.

Koh Kong prison chief Kry Buntha confirmed that Nget was in pretrial detention, while awaiting investigation by the court. 

In a response to CamboJA News via email, Wildlife Alliance referred questions to the Ministry of Environment and Koh Kong Provincial Department of Environment as the  area was protected by them.

“Wildlife Alliance does not have any rangers and we don’t have the authority or mandate to conduct any arrests,” they said, adding that the “misunderstanding could be very misleading to the public”. 

Khim Bunthong​ deputy director of Cardamom Mountain National Park said Nget’s farm was situated in a “protected area and REDD+ area”. The area has not yet been measured under the Order No. 01 framework, he added.

They were “simply following the law”, Bunthong mentioned. Wildlife Alliance and environmental officers have previously informed the community of protected areas but the farmers “never paid attention”, “always thinking” that the area was for crop rotation.

“We don’t arrest [them] immediately. We check the map first to see the exact area, and when there is a criminal offense, we do not produce a contract.” 

Bunthong said in the future, they will disseminate additional information about the protected areas and borders. 

“We will have signboards to let them [the community] know and share information online so that they are aware of those areas,” he added. 

Environment Ministry spokesperson Khvay Atiya did not respond to questions.