Around 10,000 hectares around the Tonle Sap lake have had protections relaxed, purportedly to legitimize families already using the land, while a port project linked to tycoon Try Pheap received 150 hectares off the coast of Kampot.
The reclassification of the Tonle Sap biosphere follows Prime Minister Hun Sen’s accusation last year that local officials were involved in appropriating vast swaths of flooded forest. The lake expands and contracts depending on the season, and large areas formerly covered with forest are being increasingly cleared for farming.
Hun Sen’s missive last year kicked off an enthusiastic display of action by authorities. Two police officers were jailed over land grabs, though an investigation into an ex-governor ended with no apparent action.
Since then, the government has moved to relax protections on the Unesco-recognized Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve instead. Sub-decrees from June that were officially made public in recent weeks detail the rezoning of 6,385 hectares in Kampong Thom, 3,391 hectares in Kampong Chhnang, 398 hectares in Battambang and 58 hectares in Banteay Meanchey.
Thousands of families are due to receive official permission to farm the land, though they would not receive titles that would allow them to sell it.
“This is land that people have the right to cultivate but have no right to administer,” said Kampong Thom deputy governor Sok Hay.
Sron Samrithy, Kampong Chhnang deputy governor, said officials were looking into opening up more land for cultivation.
“A national committee being led by the Ministry of Land Management is working on it. Hopefully next week there will be a result,” Samrithy said.
The Wildlife Conservation Society has previously raised the alarm that the lake basin was “losing massive amounts of habitat threatening its very existence.”
The floodplains were a vital habitat for globally threatened species such as the greater adjutant, a member of the stork family; the Bengal florican; and the hairy-nosed otter.
In a separate sub-decree published this month, 150 hectares of sea in Kampot’s Bokor city was privatized for Kampot Logistics.
The company is building a port that Transport Minister Sun Chanthol has touted as bringing in a $1.7-billion investment and could connect the coast to the Tonle Bassac river. It previously received 600 hectares off the coast.
Satellite imagery shows that the area privatized in the decree — which was signed in June — has already begun to be filled with sand.
Prek Tnaut commune chief Kong Bunra said the plots were being transferred to timber tycoon Try Pheap.
“The land belongs to oknha Try Pheap,” Bunra said, using an honorific given to people who make a large donation to the state.
The commune chief added that the development had caused a dispute with local residents. “The company must offer a solution to our affected people,” he said.
Tycoon Pheap, however, is not among the listed directors of Kampot Logistics.