Government takes back Koh Kong mangrove forest; no arrests

Three hectares of mangrove forest inside Koh Kong’s Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary that were filled in illegally with sand. The government has now reclaimed a total of 13 hectares of mangrove forest in the area as state property. Photo supplied
Three hectares of mangrove forest inside Koh Kong’s Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary that were filled in illegally with sand. The government has now reclaimed a total of 13 hectares of mangrove forest in the area as state property. Photo supplied

The Cambodian government has reclaimed 13 hectares of protected mangrove forest in Koh Kong province, which were illegally sold off to a tycoon and partially filled with sand, though nobody involved in the sale will be sent to court.

According to an announcement from the Council of Ministers, dated March 9, the government is “seizing” as state property 13.39 hectares, which were “possessed by Sok Kimhong and Meas Sivchou”.

It does not mention Oknha Chea Leanghong, who purchased the land from Kimhong and Sivchou in March 2017, or local authorities who signed off on the sale. Former Stung Veng Village Chief Chhung Thavon and former Stung Veng Commune Chief Khung Vichhean approved the sale, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Post last month.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that the government was attempting to protect those involved in the sale, but referred further questions to the responsible ministry. “We don’t protect anyone,” he said.

“We don’t honour, we don’t allow anyone to sell from hand-to-hand,” he said. “It’s illegal.”

Srun Darith, cabinet director for the Ministry of Environment, said about two of the more than three hectares of mangrove forest filled in with sand were part of a “community zone” inside the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary where villagers could farm, with the rest having a higher degree of protection. He said he was unaware the land had been sold to Leanghong and maintained the filling hadn’t resulted in serious damage, which was why the case would not be forwarded to the court.

“We just confiscate it … We do not have legal measures in addition to educating them,” he said. “The law enforcement does not mean that we need to jail the people … But if it is serious, the case will go to court.”

Article 62 of the 2008 Law on Protected Areas states that clearing or encroachment on forestland to “claim ownership” and filling in soil “on land or water area without permit” carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $37,500.

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of the NGO Mother Nature, said the “government would never dare do anything that might affect the reputation of well-connected tycoons, such as Chea [Leanghong], let alone order the courts to mount an investigation”.

“I find particularly abhorrent the fact that this is happening while activists are jailed for months under horrible conditions for simply monitoring environmental destruction.”

Gonzalez-Davidson said he didn’t foresee the Ministry of Environment doing anything to restore the area, so Mother Nature would organise an event aiming to do so.