MONDUL SEIMA DISTRICT, Koh Kong — No one really has longstanding claims to the land in Tuol Koki commune, says Sokna, a sundry shop owner.
Hailing from Takeo province, Sokna, 41, says she and her husband arrived in the area about 10 years ago, when there was no dirt road for her to sell drinks and snacks along. Most of the people living in the area don’t own land, and if they do, like Sokna, it’s less than 1 hectare registered with commune or district authorities — a “soft title” that gives owners weaker claim to their land.
The people who own bigger tracts of land don’t live in the area, Sokna says. Brokers started scoping out land, all within the Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, some six or seven years ago, hiring locals to clear the area before buying it from them. She was able to get in on the action, clearing and selling 1 hectare of protected land for $2,000 some years ago.
“The rich eat a lot, and the poor eat less,” says Sokna, who gives only her first name. “They came early so they got the land. The ones who come earlier get a lot.”
In Koh Kong, claims to protected land are set to soon become a pressing issue.
As part of a massive government campaign to privatize land — which will shrink protected areas in the process — Cambodia has cut off nearly 127,000 hectares from Koh Kong’s parks. The newly privatized area constitutes more than 11 percent of Koh Kong’s 1.1 million hectares.
The Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, a marine protected area with an adjacent forest, has lost more than 7,235 hectares, or 28 percent of its 25,897-hectare area, which spans land and water. According to maps released by the Council of Ministers in a February 2 sub-decree, the 7,235 hectares to be cut from the Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary cover parts of five communes: Mondul Seima district’s Tuol Koki and Peam Krasop communes, Koh Kong’s Koh Kapi and Tatay Krom communes, and Khemara Phoumin city’s Stung Veng commune.
Hypothetically, if that area was distributed to these communes’ populations as recorded in the 2019 Census, each of the 2,380 households would receive about 3 hectares each, though parts of some of the communes fall outside the protected area.
In Tuol Koki, where locals say at least 100 hectares of the commune belong to Cambodia’s navy commander and other tracts are owned by wealthy individuals, residents laugh off the prospects of benefiting from the Koh Kong province land redistribution campaign.
‘There Will Be Less for the People’
The commune is marked by low mountains and forest cover, which has faced deforestation in recent years. According to data from Global Forest Watch, the area lost 769 hectares of forest cover in the last two years.
Hen Hin, 32, says he’s worked on a rubber farm in Tuol Koki in Peam Krasop sanctuary for four or five years for a monthly wage of $250. When asked, he says he doesn’t know who his boss is.
However, he says that since 2019, a number of new landowners have followed his boss’s path, clearing land for rubber and rambutan plantations. When a truck with piles of sand in its bed rumbles down the pocked dirt road, Hin remarks that it will probably be refilled to make an even piece of land for a buyer.
“In the forest, they’re already putting up poles to show it belongs to [someone], but it’s all jungle,” he says. He isn’t aware of the decision to reclassify the protected area as private land, but he does not expect that he and his mother will be recipients.
“For me, I don’t want the government to cut land from the forest, because there will be less for the people. When they cut, powerful people are the only beneficiaries.”
The reallocation of Koh Kong province is part of a campaign announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen last July, in which he ordered the land management, environment and agriculture ministries to redistribute land in protected areas to poor families across the country. Environment Minister Say Sam Al subsequently tasked provincial governors with compiling and submitting lists of landholders in protected areas under their jurisdictions, an Environment Ministry spokesperson told the Phnom Penh Post last year. The landholders were to receive formal titles.
Koh Kong appears to be the first province to see province-wide, mass reallocations. An NGO source who monitors Mondulkiri province told VOD that authorities were currently considering where to issue private titles there as well, including within protected areas. They added that mapping had already taken place, though they did not know when reallocations would be announced. Land has become a lucrative commodity in Mondulkiri amid the development of an airport and more tourism sites, and its sale has been costly for indigenous communities and their culture.
Tuol Koki commune chief Kim Sokhem says she has requested about 4,000 hectares to be redistributed in her commune, but she hasn’t heard how much the commune will receive or how it will be distributed. Her estimates of the commune’s population were far higher than the 2019 census record of 276 households: She believes there to be more than 300 families in each of the four villages in her commune, with some possibly having more than 400 families.
Many residents in her commune will likely have already sold or will be selling their claims to buyers from Phnom Penh, she says.
“In fact our people are poor and desperate, and they do not understand that when they clear [trees] and sell the cut [land], [the benefit] will fall to the buyers rather than the people,” Sokhem says. “We cannot blame them because they are poor.”
Lit Tan, chief of the commune’s Ta Chat village, says he is aware of the government’s decision to cut parts of the protected area for privatization, but doesn’t know much about the process, saying he is awaiting instructions from the province.
But he says he is happy about the plan, as he feels it will lead to more tourism development, and settle some of the land disputes that he deals with daily.
Being a protected area hasn’t meant much when it comes to actually protecting the land from encroachment, he says. “Even if there’s protection, we can’t fully protect all of it.”
When talking about development, Tan brings up Tea Vinh, the Royal Navy’s commander, whose double-story home and sprawling fenced-in compound faces the village chief. Tan says Vinh has another compound next to the village occupying about 100 hectares.
“If not for Tea Vinh, there would be no road to get here,” says Tan.
Sokna, the shop vendor, says Vinh also owns a newly cleared plot facing her home on the way into Ta Chat village. Both Sokna and Tan say Vinh visits Ta Chat village during holidays, making donations to the pagoda and the village.
‘Stop Clearing and Encroaching’
Provincial governor Mithona Phouthorng tells VOD the province is announcing the land reclassification in steps, as provincial officials are waiting on the Land Ministry to help measure the land.
A working group will visit the area to check whether people are using the land, and their claims to ownership. If someone has an improper land title, it will be confiscated, Phouthorng says, though she does not explain what would be considered improper documentation.
“For the people’s land that is actually being used, they can use it, while the rest of the land belongs to the provincial administration, which will be used for building infrastructure and preparations for brothers’ and sisters’ interests and preserving the land for future interest.”
When asked whether she is concerned that brokers are clearing land because of the government’s decision to distribute protected areas, she repeats that the government is taking the land redistribution in steps.
“We are implementing it gradually and call on brothers and sisters to stop clearing and encroaching illegally, or they will face the law,” she says.
There once were tigers roaming the forest surrounding his land, says Chaem Roeun, a fisherman who says he’s lived in the area since the 1990s. Though he sometimes can still hear a growl, Roeun says he’s stopped seeing them in recent years, and the fishing has become harder, partly because people are clearing mangrove forests in Peam Krasop anticipating potential buyers, he says.
“When there’s a road, there’s people clearing,” he says.
While local environmental officials have stopped him from cutting a few trees for repairs to his home, he notes that some have been able to clear land without consequence, speculating that those people have connections that enable them to cut protected forest. The government’s scheme to redistribute land will probably proceed in the same way, he says.
“I question whether the people will get the land,” Roeun says through a laugh. “I do not believe so, absolutely not. Only the rich keep clearing, keep clearing.”
“The poor only catch crabs and get one or two kilograms — we live day to day like this. Some people are clearing land and selling it to oknha, to buy a car or something, while we’re still poor.”