Human rights representatives from NGO Adhoc and the United Nations have been asked to intervene in a land dispute between villagers and an army lieutenant they say was granted a land title illegally inside a protected community forest in Oddar Meanchey province.
Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for Adhoc, said he and a UN representative from Battambang’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights visited the area on Thursday, finding that the disputed land indeed lies within a community forest. It is supposed to be protected under the UN’s REDD+ program, through which forests are meant to be conserved in exchange for carbon credits.
Villagers sought advice from Adhoc after they were sued last year by Lieutenant Van Limeng, who is stationed at the Anlong Veng military base, for allegedly using his land to farm. They deny having done so and contend that he should not have ownership over it since it belongs to the community.
Limeng yesterday rejected claims that he grabbed the land from the villagers or the O’Sophy Kiri Prey Srong community forest illegally. He said he, and others, first cleared the land in 2002 before the boundaries of the community forest were established.
“We saw others clearing and we did [it], too, since 2002 or 2003, to grow rice before the community [was formed]in 2012,” he said.
Limeng further claimed that he only received a land title for some 10 hectares, contrary to the 75 hectares claimed by the villagers and Adhoc. He wasn’t able to provide a copy of the land title yesterday, but said he received it in 2014, six years after the REDD+ project was established.
The project, which was supposed to protect forest cover in all community forests in Oddar Meanchey, was set up in 2008, but conservationists say it ran into issues, in part because there were many soldiers who had settled in the area at the time, making it difficult to police illegal clearing.
According to Naren, just a small portion of the forest remains, as it is now accommodating several homes and plantations.
Adhoc has not yet completed its investigation into the case, but Naren said that it is clear that Limeng shouldn’t have been granted a land title.
“Community land is the state land, which no one has the right to manage or issue land titles,” he said.
Yin Rady, an official with the Provincial Department of Land Management and a former chief of the land office in Anlong Veng district, confirmed that Limeng was granted a land title, as had others inside the protected area, but was unsure of the year or the number of hectares.
He added that several officials had been involved in granting titles and he had no authority to make the final decision. He urged authorities to launch an investigation to discover the truth, and said he would be willing to face legal punishment if it was discovered he had wrongfully granted the land titles.