Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered three ministries to allocate land in protected areas, including wildlife sanctuaries, to the people.
Possible recipients can receive previously banned land if they can show they are truly dependent and lived there for many years. He also warned of legal action against powerful people using money to ask people to encroach on forest land.
At a meeting at the Council of Ministers on Friday, Hun Sen ordered the ministries of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Environment to issue land ownership titles to citizens in the coming months.
“The state only has land on a map. People have been living in villages for decades at those locations. This addresses the real concerns of the people. We do not leave them living in fear, starving and migrating to other countries.
“At the same time, we do not let the population expand on the land anymore because it is necessary to preserve some community forest,” the prime minister said on a Sunday Facebook post.
Hun Sen said besides people receiving land they live on, the state will provide an additional 10 per cent of extra land to find wood or for cows to graze. He said officials that benefit financially from the land distribution to people will be punished.
The prime minister also observed that in the past, rich and powerful people have been using the poor to encroach on forest land on the former’s behalf. He said groups of looters occupied state land and overnight build 10 to 20 huts on the site.
He said those people must be arrested. “Rich and powerful people should learn to stop taking advantage of the poor,” he said.
Ministry of Environment secretary of state and spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said on Sunday that it is updating the number of people living and depending on the land in protected areas and will carry out the prime minister’s directive.
Cambodia has forest covering about 50 per cent of the country, the highest rate in Southeast Asia, according to the ministry.
About 41 per cent, equivalent to about seven million hectares, has been designated by the government as protected, including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, multi-use areas, natural heritage protected areas and biodiversity conservation corridors, totalling 69 sites under the ministry’s control.
Bunong ethnic and forestry protection activist in Mondulkiri province, Kroeung Tola, said Hun Sen’s comments now will do more harm than good. He said it is not evicted people who violate state land.
He said giving the land to the people will present an opportunity for rich and powerful people to collude with local authorities to occupy it.
“They bulldoze the wood from the land. One year later it looks like the land has been occupied for 10 to 20 years. It is an opportunity for those who have money and power to claim that they settled on the land since 1990. The authorities support them because they are on the same team,” he said.
Tola said he hopes there will be no danger to citizens living in protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries. He said authorities always evict citizens from the areas, claiming it is protected land that belongs to the State.