Ex-Soldiers Hack Land Out of Remote Forest

Demobilized soldiers with no land in Stung Treng province have been cutting plots of land for themselves in the jungle along Route 19, speculating the land will spike in value once the road is rehabilitated.

The road is intended to be a major part of a planned multi-national highway that will link Vietnam and northern Cambodia to other Asean countries.

Funding for the highway has not been procured, nor a date set for construction, but that has not stopped the landless soldiers from clearing hundreds of hectares of land along the road since early 2002, said Sous Sivutha, of the Cultural and Environmental Preser­vation Association.

Villagers, soldiers, local businessmen and “powerful officials” in the province are all betting that a new highway will mean high prices for land.

Provincial authorities have been unable to stop it, but the land speculating there highlights three of the countries largest problems: The plight of the demobilized soldier, land titling and the preservation of the country’s forests.

Once soldiers clear the land along the road, which runs through Stung Treng toward O’Ya-daw district in Ratanakkiri province, they sell it for about $200 per hectare, Sous Sivutha said. They also take $80 per hectare clearing land that some businessmen claim to own already.

“Soldiers are clearing and burning the forest. Some are farming it before selling out to the province’s powerful people,” Sous Sivutha said. “We have seen many signs surrounding the land. The signs say someone owns the land.”

However, the two officials said, it is legally impossible for the land to change private owners. All of it belongs to the state, they said.

“The provincial authorities have not yet taken strong action against those soldiers and land owners,” Sous Sivutha said. “It has a serious effect on the forest and wildlife.”

Landlessness is one of Cam­bodia’s largest hurdles to overcome in its war against poverty. Years of civil war have made the job of determining land ownership a daunting task. The government is in the middle of drafting subdecrees and directives that would effectively put in place a land law that was passed last year.

Even though all of those have not been passed, cutting forest land and selling it to private individuals is clearly illegal, experts said.

Forest land is public property, said Lim Voan, the director of the land title department for the Ministry of Land Management, Urbanization and Construction.

“It cannot be given as private rights to people,” he said. The new law is “very clear,” he added. “The law prohibits new occupation on land by others.”

Still, experts said, a wide chasm remains between the letter of the law and its implementation.

The Stung Treng land claims also signify a larger problem with the demobilization program in general, said Geoffrey Blume, a retired US Army colonel and demobilization expert.

Demobilized soldiers have been “thrown out to the wolves,” Blume said. Government promises of cash, land and other equipment have fallen short for many of the former soldiers, he said. “They’re not coming through,” he said of the government. “That’s going to come out. That will come to a head.”

Soldiers are receiving as little as a third of the funds they have been promised, which may be a reason they have turned to the land claims.

There are so far 15,000 demobilized soldiers out of 30,000 planned for this year, said Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of defense.

In Stung Treng and other provinces, he said, “abuses of power” still occur, even with demobilized soldiers, who “tend to look after each other even after they have been decommissioned.”

Sisowath Sirirath conceded that procurement of equipment like motorcycles and sewing machines had been slow getting to the soldiers.

The first 15,000 former soldiers “have not received what they have requested,” he said.

A pilot program begun with 1,500 soldiers in May 2000 did not see completion until late 2001, he said. So getting everything to every former soldier will take time.

“We have told them it’s a long process, but I believe it will come,” he said. “The money is there.”

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