About 100 villagers in Banteay Meanchey province protested at a flooded forest where they allege 120 hectares of public land was sold by local officials to private interests.
The villagers have said they use the forest for firewood and fishing, and have issued an open letter with more than 800 thumbprints alleging the involvement of the Preah Netr Preah district governor and Phnom Liep commune chief in the purported sale.
Chhay Loeu, a local community representative, said the protesters, who gathered at the site during the morning on Monday, were demanding the return of the land — formerly owned by the state — to the community.
“If not, just continue to demand,” Loeu said. “Can’t stand still. If we stand still, it means that we have surrendered to those powerful people.”
A land sale document previously provided to VOD appears to show a sale to a couple in provincial capital Serei Saophoan.
Loeu said the flooded forest was home to spawning fish and biodiversity, and provided resources to local residents throughout the year.
Hean Hann, a resident of Kambor village, said many people relied on fishing in the area for their livelihoods, but that authorities began to clear the land in 2019.
“This is the community’s land. All of it was forested land in the past,” Hann said. The problems began after the most recent commune-level elections in 2017, he said.
Banteay Meanchey deputy governor Ly Sary said provincial authorities had seen the allegations, and would address it soon.
“Just seen people’s posts,” he said. “And now the province is sending an inter-departmental [team] to inspect it along with the armed forces and expert officials. Let’s see.”
Phnom Liep commune chief Em Noy and Netr Preah district governor Khou Pov could not be reached for comment.
Previously, both Noy and Pov said they were not involved in the sale, despite their signatures appearing on the purported land-sale document.
Sum Chankea, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said hundreds of hectares of flooded forest had already been cleared and lost in the area. The land was being converted for commercial projects, he said.
If the government continued to allow lower-level officials to exploit state resources, forests and people’s livelihoods would keep getting eroded, he said.
“It used to have very large [trees], but all of it has been cleared and sold to traders,” Chankea said.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)