Two protected wildlife sanctuaries – Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province and Roneam Daun Sam Wildlife Sanctuary in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces – have been dissolved under a royal decree, with at least one conservationist on Sunday saying the move illustrated the government’s failure to protect the forest.

The royal decree, dated February 22, was posted on the Ministry of Environment’s official Facebook page on Thursday. It announces the dissolution of the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1993 and consisting of 75,000 hectares, as well as the Roneam Daun Sam Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 2003 and consisting of 39,961 hectares.

Chhay Duong Savuth, director of the Kratie province Environment Department, said the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary was being dissolved because it has been completely lost, which he blamed on local villagers.

“If it wasn’t gone, it would not be dissolved,” he said. “I want to say that the land has been cleared and grabbed by people.”

However, the government has granted thousands of hectares to companies in the form of economic land concessions for rubber plantations inside both sanctuaries, and the areas had also grappled with illegal logging over the years.

The Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in particular is on the border with Vietnam, and for years there were allegations that wood from the protected area was being smuggled across the border.

Duong Savuth said the protection of Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary was difficult due to a lack of rangers and people clearing the land defying authorities. He pointed to a recent protest at Kratie’s Memot Rubber Plantation, where security forces fired on demonstrators, injuring three.

Kott Boran, director of the Battambang province Environment Department, claimed that a population increase had led to the loss of the Roneam Daun Sam Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Currently, people are cultivating on the land,” he said. “The cultivation has happened for a long time.”

But Seng Sokheng, with the Community Peace Building Network, said the blame for the dissolution of the sanctuaries rested with the government.

Land inside the sanctuaries “was granted to private companies”, and the forest was also cleared for private ownership, he added. Timber was logged for businesses, he continued, involving government officials and powerful tycoons.

“We think that the government should . . . replant trees instead of converting these areas for agri-business because it will make the public hopeless with the government regarding forest protection and commitment,” he said. “The public will see that this case . . . can be [due to] government weakness on law enforcement.”

Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro