Residents of Kampong Sralao II commune in Preah Vihear province’s Chhep district have reported that around 200ha of their community forest land has been encroached upon by squatters from other provinces.

They said more than 100 families have allegedly settled on their land without permission and continued to do so despite warnings from local authorities of legal action.

Ken Sokun, head of the Kampong Preah Ind community, told The Post on April 25 that approximately 200ha of the community forest – located in the Trapeang Kbal Damrey and Changha Thom areas, opposite the Trapeang Korki and Pralay Romdeng areas in Preah Rumkel commune of Stung Treng province’s Thala Borivat district – have been taken over by the squatters to build homes without permission.

“In early April, our team discovered that between four and 10 houses had been built or were under construction. But presently there are more than 100 houses and huts built,” Sokun claimed.

According to Sokun, a majority of the squatters originate from other provinces such as Stung Treng, Tbong Khmum, Ratanakkiri, Oddar Meanchey, Kampong Chhnang as well as from Preah Vihear province’s Rovieng district.

Although local authorities from the Kampong Sralao-M’lou Prey administrations have conducted crackdowns on these individuals and confiscated their tools and educated them regarding the illegality of their activities, they persist in this activity.

Furthermore, they are actively encouraging others to join them in their actions, even after being required to sign a contract to cease these activities, according to Sokun.

The number of houses built on the community forest land is alarming the residents of Kampong Sralao II commune.

According to Ham Lyheang, head of the Kampong Chrey community, his team has identified four suspected brokers: San Toeung, Ham Kosal, Lonh Chek and Sok Socheat.

He alleges that these individuals are reportedly calling people from other districts and provinces to encroach and build houses across the Trapeang Kbal Damrey and Changha Thom zones.

“They are not only cutting down forests, encroaching on forest land and building ramshackle houses in our community’s forests, but also engaging in hunting and trapping of our wildlife,” he said.

According to Lyheang, the community recently rescued a banteng from a trap and also discovered and removed almost 100 wildlife traps in Trapeang Kbal Damrey and Changha Thom, which border Trapeang Korki and Trapeang Rumdeng in Preah Rumkel commune of Stung Treng province’s Thala Borivat district.

He said these locations were targeted by a group of squatters who hide in the forest for the purpose of capturing wild animals.

Lyheang is urging the relevant authorities, especially the Forestry Administration (FA) Kampong Sralao- M’lou Prey cantonment, to intervene and take immediate legal action against the squatters in order to protect the forest and wildlife in the community that are being threatened by the squatters.

Nget Sophy, head of the FA’s Kampong Sralao- M’lou Prey cantonment, told The Post that his team is taking action. He added that in the past his team had collaborated with the community to carry out forest patrols and had been vigilant in detecting and cracking down on any crimes committed in the area.

“In the event of individuals from other regions encroaching on the community forest land in Kampong Sralao II commune, we have taken necessary measures by conducting crackdowns, confiscating tools, and providing education to discourage illegal activities.

“Currently, our team is actively researching and collecting evidence in accordance with procedures. Subsequently, we will compile documents containing evidence which will be sent to the upper management for further action,” he said.

However, Pek Sophorn, director of the Ponlok Khmer NGO, told The Post that authorities seem hesitant to crack down on these opportunists and remove them from the community’s protected forest.

Meanwhile, he said, these activities continue, causing extensive damage to forests and wildlife.

“The delay in taking administrative action to address the aforementioned crimes will embolden those opportunists to further harm natural resources in the community forest located in Kampong Sralao II commune,” he said.

However, the implementation of administrative measures cannot be rushed as the encroached location has not been clearly defined yet, according to one official.

The location is situated at the border between Chhep district’s Kampong Sralao II commune in Preah Vihear province and Preah Rumkel commune of Stung Treng province’s Thala Barivat district, according to Ping Thong, the chief of Kampong Sralao II commune. Thong said that authorities intend to take action on the case.