Stop Issuing Land Titles in Protected Areas, Provincial Governors Told

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Fence posts inscribed with phone numbers partition land in Mondulkiri’s O’Reang district on February 12, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

The Environment Ministry has told all provincial governors to immediately stop the issuing of land certificates in protected areas such as biodiversity corridors, saying 70 sanctuaries in 11 provinces were facing encroachment.

In a letter last week, the ministry said it had found that some commune administrations were continuing to sign certificates recognizing the possession of land in protected areas by individuals, even though the sale of such land is illegal.

Provincial governors must take action to annul all such documents, the ministry said.

Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said more than 70 protected areas in 11 provinces were facing encroachment. The ministry had already confiscated many tracts of land to return to state property in Kampong Speu, Kampong Thom, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and other provinces, he said.

Sometimes, prospective buyers would manipulate poor residents nearby to encroach on the land so they can buy it off of them, he said.

“I would like to emphasize that no one has the right to own or sell land in a natural area,” Pheaktra said.

“The Ministry of Environment urges people who do not understand the law to stop being tricked by bad people and stop all illegal activities immediately and immediately stop the purchase of state land, and the certification of illegal purchases of state land in protected natural areas,” he said. “And remove all types of buildings by yourself and return the land to the Ministry of Environment for control. Otherwise, [you] will face legal action.”

Kampong Thom provincial governor Sok Loo said his province had never signed or issued any land-certification documents in protected areas and biodiversity corridors. However, he said that the provincial administration would nevertheless follow the instructions of the ministry.

“I saw the letter. We will try to do that if any local level has issued such a certificate of tenure. But in the past, as far as I know, it seems there has never been issued any land title in Kampong Thom province’s protected areas,” Loo said.

Earlier this month, the Kampong Speu provincial administration confiscated 281 in the Central Cardamom Mountains National Park where it said people were illegally growing crops.

Kampong Speu provincial governor Vei Samang said on Monday that Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng had already made similar appeals in the past, and the province was working to reclaim protected areas.

“In general, when we find where they are illegally taking the forest land for ownership, it needs to be taken back,” he said, though he did not have figures about how much state land had been reclaimed.

Typically, no one returns to claim ownership once authorities discover encroached areas, he added.

Pen Vuthea, an official for human rights group Licadho in Koh Kong province, said there was a lot of encroachment happening in forests and the filling in of rivers and coast.

He alleged that it was systematic, and that rich and powerful people were behind some of the encroachments. Vuthea urged that strict legal action be taken.

Heng Kimhong, head of the Cambodian Youth Network’s research and advocacy program, also called for legal action.

Citizens, environmental activists and NGO should be allowed to help monitor protected areas, he said, saying there was “negligence by the public authorities.”

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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