Cambodians authorities have cracked down on villagers in three forest communities, arresting them or forcing them to stop clearing land for subsistence agriculture, while companies, military personnel and the government continue to encroach upon the areas, according to commune leaders and rights group officials.
A provincial court in southeastern Cambodia on Monday sentenced three community activists to five years in prison for destroying trees under the control of the country’s Forestry Administration, prompting criticism from a rights group which said the punishment was too severe for such a minor offense, according to a local leader.
The Svay Rieng provincial court has yet to issue arrest warrants for the community leader and two activists who were sentenced, said Suon Seiha, a community leader in Andong Trabek commune.
He accused officials of fabricating charges against the three, who are poor villagers, and called the court’s verdict unjust.
The land and forest in question has belonged to 86 families since 1979, he said, but the Forestry Administration, a government authority under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that manages forests and forest resources, encroached upon the area in 2008 and planted trees on 71 hectares (175 acres).
Afterwards, the villagers revolted and discovered that the Forestry Administration had sold their land to other private owners, he said. But when they demanded their land back, forestry officials sued them.
“The court’s verdict is to threaten and intimidate villagers” not to demand the land back, Suon Seiha said.
Nuth Bopinrot, a provincial coordinator for the domestic rights group Licadho, argued that the penalty was inappropriate for the offense because the villagers had destroyed only a few trees.
“The conviction was targeted against the community leaders who helped the villagers to understand their rights and to protest and demand freedom,” he said.
Clearing the land
Also on Monday, about 100 villagers from Stung Treng province in northern Cambodia protested against local authorities after the officials stopped them from clearing forest area so they could grow crops on it, a local resident said.
Ethnic Phnong minority villagers in the Sesan district started felling trees after a company with a land concession from the government destroyed their previous growing area, said villager Saroeun Sakhom.
The residents, however, refused to sign their names to documents presented by authorities to stop clearing forest, she said.
The land they have been clearing is deforested area, because the company that was granted the land concession had already cleared most of the forest since it began doing so in 2012.
In response, the villagers decided to clear their community forest and use the land to cultivate crops for their own survival, Saroeun Sakhom said.
“I didn’t clear the forest to sell the land; I am clearing to take land [to grow crops] to support my family,” she said, adding that authorities previously had confiscated her land and house to build the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 dam, which is being built on two tributaries of the Mekong River.
Seak Mekong, chief of the district’s Srekor commune, said local officials have been collecting data on the villagers and submitting them to provincial authorities in hopes that they will receive social land concessions since it is illegal for them to clear the forest.
“I asked them to send requests to the commune level so we can resolve [the issue] according to the law, but they are exercising their rights, and at least two villages are working against the forestry officials,” he said.
Ho Sam Ol, a provincial coordinator for the domestic rights group Adhoc, said authorities should resolve the villagers’ concerns.
“The villagers just cleared enough land to use for planting crops and to build their houses,” he said.
Of the total 570 families who live in Srekor commune, 254 have not received compensation for the confiscation of their land and homes, Ho Sam Ol said.
Although the government had promised to relocate the villagers and provide them enough land for houses and farmland, about half of the 254 families have refused to move, he said.
Afraid to patrol forest area
Meanwhile, members of the Andongbor forest community in the Banteay Ampil district of Banteay Meanchey province in northwest Cambodia said they are afraid to patrol the area because military personnel and other powerful people who are transporting logging equipment there had threatened them along with activists protecting the forestland, a community official said.
They community members urged the government to take action against the illegal loggers because of the villagers’ inability to protect the area’s 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres), said Koeut Mab, deputy leader of Andongbor forest community, on Monday.
But now only 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of the original amount of forestland exist because military officers have been clearing the area since 2004, and are still transporting equipment to encroach upon the remainder, he said.
“Since the military moved in, it has been clearing forest daily,” Koeut Mab said.
Villagers have asked a rights group in neighboring Oddar Meanchey province to file a complaint against the encroachment because local authorities refused to take any action, he said.
But Haing Meng, governor of Banteay Ampil district in Oddar Meanchey, doubted that the issue could be resolved because the military has been confiscating forestland to build a camp since 2008, when Cambodia was engaged in a brief border conflict with Thailand.
“I can’t say anything, and it is not my duty to say anything because the military has been stationed there to defend our country,” he said.
Ho Sam Ol said it was illegal for the military to confiscate the land since the Ministry of Agriculture had given it to the community.
The crackdown comes just days after opposition leader Sam Rainsy suggested that his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would set up an independent tribunal to force land redistribution from the wealthy to the poor should it win the 2018 national elections, The Cambodia Daily reported
Such a move would reverse decades of land-grabbing under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said any such action by the CNRP could provoke a civil war by seizing land from its “class enemies” if it wins the vote, the report said.
The seizure of land for development — often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents — has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Reported by Hang Savyouth, Tha Keisya and Men Sothy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.