Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Major Natural Resource Crackdown in Pursat Continues To Seize Land, Nab People, Dismantle Huts

A group of gendarmes taking Koyun through a farmland during the natural resource crackdown in Pursat, on GRK News Facebook page on 19 March 2024.
A group of gendarmes taking Koyun through a farmland during the natural resource crackdown in Pursat, on GRK News Facebook page on 19 March 2024.

A major crackdown comprising 10 teams, including the National Gendarmerie, National Police Force and Pursat Provincial authorities has seen the arrest of 16 people, who are now under scrutiny for further action. One person has been charged for illegally occupying state land, as the one-month crackdown on natural resource-related crimes presses on.

Under Article 259 of the Land Law, a person who is found to have occupied state land can be jailed between one and five years, and fined five million to 50 million riel.

The coordinated enforcement was mounted to prevent encroachment on state land and strengthen law enforcement in protected areas in a timely manner, according to Khvay Atiya, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment.

As reported by CamboJA on March 19, which marks one week since the crackdown kicked off, Atiya said 4,747.14 hectares of land within the protected area in Phnom Kravanh and Veal Veng, two districts in Pursat province, had been seized.

“Meanwhile, the operation dismantled 253 huts, which were lived in by the suspects and confiscated 18 chainsaws, six knives, five motors and a koyun [agricultural tractor]. Some 2,177 fence posts that were used to enclose the land were also seized,” he told CamboJA Thursday. 

Pursat provincial court deputy prosecutor Kham Van Moniroth declined to share information on the outcome of the arrests. When asked whether Pursat provincial court had charged the detained and what their offenses were, Van Moniroth instead asked CamboJA News to list down the suspects’ names and the specific cases.

The enforcement team also advised people who worked on the alleged suspects’ farmland as daily laborers to not return, urging them to go back home, Atiya said.

Pursat provincial governor Khoy Rida did not respond to CamboJA’s questions immediately. After numerous calls on Wednesday and Thursday, Rida replied, “I cannot talk. I am in a meeting”. Questions sent to him on messaging app Telegram were not seen.  

Recall that the large-scale operation stemmed from a meeting with the Environment Ministry, Pursat Environment Department and the Royal Gendarmerie to stop natural resource crimes in Pursat province. It was followed by an order from the government to strengthen natural resource management and stamp out illegal logging in protected areas.

Confiscated equipment, like chainsaw, home-made gun, and cleavers are displayed on the ground following a crackdown, on GRK News Facebook page on 19 March 2024.

A letter issued by the ministry of environment displays its commitment with local authorities in strengthening law enforcement. It urged relevant authorities governing protected areas to “enforce the law 100 percent” without exemption and end the culture of releasing perpetrators.

“In this regard, stringent measures [should] be taken to prevent, eliminate and suppress all illegal activities in protected areas in accordance with laws and regulations with a high sense of responsibility,” the letter stated.

Atiya said communities which make a living by foraging for forest products are “indispensable guardians” and need to collaborate with the local authorities to safeguard the remaining forest.

“In every protected area, there is a community which needs to cooperate with authorities as they [the former] rely on natural resources for livelihood. Natural resources not only dispense food but also income to their community,” he asserted.

Yet, environmental activists bemoan the environmental officials’ disregard for cooperation. Instead, they try to block activists from patrolling while allegedly allowing loggers to enter the forest to cut down luxury timbers and transport them out of wildlife sanctuaries with impunity. 

Pursat forestry administration head Bun Ly could not be reached for comment.

The Ministry of Environment posted photos on Facebook showing that the operation nabbed three people, seized an additional 1,700 hectares, four chainsaws, one grasscutter and a hand-made gun on Wednesday.

Out Latin, project coordinator with advocacy group Cambodian Youth Network, told CamboJA that authorities tend to arrest ordinary people who do not own much land, so they clear a small plot of land to farm to support their livelihood. 

However, he alleged, the authorities only carried out limited action against huge timber trade syndicates, which allegedly operate day and night within the designated protected area. 

“I see that this crackdown appears to provoke injustice for the ordinary people who scrape by [with very little]. The people do that because they have no land to cultivate for a living. The new government should consider carving out land as a social land concession for poor people,” he said. 

In order to stamp out deforestation, the authorities should find illegal timber trade operations within the protected area and wildlife sanctuary rather than “pounce on the poor”.

“They must revoke the license of private companies which received economic land concessions because, as I see it, they have caused a tremendous level of deforestation. Powerful people or oknha tend to benefit greatly from deforestation,” Latin said.

The government should strengthen enforcement against illegal timber syndicates which have cut swathes of the forest land in wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas over the last decade, he added.