The government has allocated 600 hectares of state forests in Preah Sihanouk province’s Prey Nob district to two tycoons linked to sugar plantations and other businesses.
A government sub-decree names Seng Nhak and Ly Arporn as the new owners of the land in Ream and Bit Traing communes, which were listed as flooded state forests. The decree, dated June, was seen by VOD on Wednesday.
According to Commerce Ministry records, Nhak and Arporn are co-directors of real estate companies Creative Living, the Premier Land and the Premier Land Sihanoukville.
Nhak is also a director for wholesale supermarket Makro and the Kampong Speu Sugar plantation, while Arporn is a director at the Kampong Speu Plantation, which is listed as a sugar grower; the Koh Kong SEZ; ruling CPP senator Ly Yong Phat’s LYP Group; and the LYP Group’s Garden City Development, among other companies.
Kampong Speu Sugar was in the last decade targeted by an international “Blood Sugar” campaign — which alleged evictions, at times forcible, of as many as 1,000 villagers. The E.U. reinstated tariffs on sugar this year as part of its “Everything But Arms” partial suspension, citing human rights abuses in Cambodia.
Preah Sihanouk provincial spokesperson Kheang Phearum told VOD that the Agriculture Ministry had requested the land transfer. Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon referred questions to Ung Sam Ath, a secretary of state at the ministry in charge of forestry administration. Sam Ath said he was busy and could not comment.
Sun Sophat, a volunteer with the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community in Preah Sihanouk, said there had been no transparency in the transfer of land, and instead there was a gulf between the treatment of oknha, or business tycoons, versus poor villagers in the area.
Many families in Ream and Bit Traing had faced state crackdowns, been accused of encroaching on forests and threatened, Sophat said. But now the rich were being given the land, he added.
“For the most part we’ve only seen oknha and some high-ranking officials take control of state land, receiving … concessions from the state,” Sophat said.
On July 24, two villagers were arrested in the area for alleged encroachment of protected land. According to a statement issued by the provincial environment department that day, the government designated some land there as the Prek Toek Sap Kbal Chhay multiple-use area in 2016, making the clearing of forest, growing crops, building huts and claiming ownership a crime.
The department said local people had been encroaching on the area, in Bit Traing’s Chamnaot Ream village, and resisting law enforcement efforts by environmental authorities. On the day in question, the provincial department, alongside district officers, were met by a group of about 30 people who were growing crops and building houses illegally.
“In order to prevent anarchic activity, the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Environmental Department’s ranger forces and the Prey Nob administration educated those people to leave from the above location peacefully, but instead those people resisted, protesting against the advice given by the Prey Nob district administration,” the statement said.
As a consequence, two people were arrested and sent to the provincial police headquarters for questioning, it said.
Additional reporting by Ouch Sony
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)