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Forest on the auction block

Almost 30,000 hectares of a wildlife sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey, Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces have been reclassified as state private land for agricultural development, drawing sharp criticism from rights groups.

Four sub-decrees signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on July 22 reclassify land in the Kulen Promptep sanctuary, paving the way for its development.

They cover 12,820 hectares in Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces and 15,450 hectares in Oddar Meanchey’s Anlong Veng district.

Thuk Kreun Vutha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, said the government had conducted environmental impact assessments and deemed wildlife would not be affected.

“Now, this wildlife sanctuary has no more wildlife. It is eroded land,” he said.

But Wutty Chut, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, said that although Ministry of Environment officials had failed to curb illegal poaching and logging in the sanctuary, the area still contained areas of healthy forest and diverse species that were protected by law.

Businessmen developing agriculture in other forest areas reclassified recently, such as the Phnom Oral wildlife sanctuary, had planted token crops to conceal their real activity, which was logging , he said.

“In the government, they do focus on land concessions; they increased them last month and this month. It’s very strange,” Wutty Chut said.

During the past year, land concessions amounting to tens of thousands of hectares have been granted to companies.

Concessions signed by Hun Sen in February and April gave more than 55,000 hectares of national park to private companies under 99-year leases for agricultural development.

Ouch Leng, head of the land programme at rights group Adhoc, said villagers  in protected areas that were sold to companies rarely received adequate compensation.

“We don’t understand government policy. Why does it give land to private firms, but not consider the impact on people?”

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