A Change of Guard

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Monday, 10 December 2012

No end to eight-year land struggle in Battambang [The rich and the powerful are the worst land-grabbers]

Monday, 10 December 2012
Phnom Penh Post
David Boyle

A house built on cleared and cultivated land in the middle of the Prey Trolach Community Forest in Battambang province. Photograph supplied
In the latest chapter of what is proving to be an arduous struggle to protect a government demarcated Community Forest in Battambang province, 36 hectares of the land have reportedly been given over to outsiders including a military official.

Not a month has passed since 825 families celebrated what should have been a definitive decision in mid-November by the Forestry Administration to recognise the 1,335 hectare Prey Trolach Community Forest following an eight-year struggle to have the area properly delineated.

But even at the time, just days after the drone of chainsaws clearing vast swathes of the forest finally died down, villagers said they were wary that the fight was over. Now it seems they had good reason to be sceptical.

A source with intimate knowledge of the dispute has told the Post that a military official was earlier this month granted a land title for 8.3353 hectares in the Community Forest. Between the official and three civilians who were also granted titles, 36 hectares of the Community Forest in total have been handed over, the source said.

Photos obtained by the Post yesterday show that the area in question, already known to have been clear felled so as to plant banana and corn, has now been harvested, while the Roka Kiri district governor has said he also has been alerted to the apparently illegal concessions and is investigating.

John Macgregor, a project adviser for the livelihood group After the Flood, said yesterday that it appeared the families had been undermined by powerful interests receiving government protection.

“The community is extremely unhappy, they have worked for eight years on this, an exhaustive process, and in six months a bunch of land grabbers with high level protection have showed up and started taking the fruits of their labour out of their hands,” he said.

Roka Kiri district chief Pich Malai said that after he heard about the alleged titles within the protected area of Prey Trolach he unsuccessfully attempted to contact Community Forest Management Committee chief Im Oeun, stressing that there were no official documents to prove that this land had actually been cut.

“I have assigned one of my deputies to check it out and I will meet him tomorrow so that I will have some information about this case,” he said.

Oeun could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ly Chou Beang, director of the Forestry Administration’s Battambang provincial cantonment, denied titles had been issued and said after his forces intervened to make land grabbers sign contracts agreeing to stop, the problem had gone away.

“The land of the Community Forest is still there. No one touched it recently. My officials will tell me when there is land clearing in the community forest,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Phak Seangly and Cheang Sokha

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