Villagers claim forest illegally sold in Mondulkiri

A section of cleared forestland in Mondulkiri’s Laoka village that locals claim was illegally sold, allegedly with local authorities signing off the sale. Photo supplied
A section of cleared forestland in Mondulkiri’s Laoka village that locals claim was illegally sold, allegedly with local authorities signing off the sale. Photo supplied

An ethnic Phnong community near Mondulkiri’s Sen Monorom town on Monday claimed that at least 80 hectares of forestland, which they have long depended on for their livelihoods, were covertly sold, with local authorities allegedly signing off on the sale.

While the Phnong villagers from Laoka village say they have depended on the disputed forestland since 1984 to collect forest products, they lack the official registration of the land as a community forest.

Ploek Phearum, a community representative, said that on Monday a woman, along with eight police officials, showed up to the forestland in question and claimed she had bought 50 hectares, which three of her workers began to clear.

Phearum said the woman ordered the workers to destroy huts the villager had built to help prevent further land grabs in the area. The workers also took wood that the villagers had cut to build more huts and homes in the area, including 40 planks and 30 other pieces of timber.

“She is an employer claiming that she is the owner of the land,” she said. “The land is state-owned from which people get the forestry goods, but they logged [villagers’] resin trees.”

About 40 families depend on the 50 hectares of forestland for their livelihoods and had built huts there, she said.

According to a case study from the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance (CIPA), the woman behind the purchase of the 50 hectares is Choeun Kimleng.

CIPA’s case study also states that there are two other individuals, identified as Ly Chhun and Sok Sokha, who also bought land in the area, and that the sale was signed off by village, commune and town authorities.

In Ear, former Sokhadum commune chief, said he didn’t remember the sale of the land. The residents of Laoka village, he added, had always relied on the forest as their community land, and had prevented outsiders from logging it.

Sen Monorom Governor Long Vibol would only say that he was aware of this case and had already advised both sides to meet. “Both the [community] and the side claiming to be the landowner should come and talk and show the documents,” he said, declining to comment further.

Kloeum Meul, Laoka village chief, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sok Rotha, coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, which accepted a complaint from the villagers, said the disputed land was state forestland, and that it would therefore be illegal to sell or purchase it.