UN intervenes after army officer grabs villagers’ land

The disputed land is located in the O'Sophy Kiri Prey Srong forest, which is protected by the United Nations. Lieutenant Van Limeng sued 13 families in O'Chab Trey village. Many soldiers stationed in a nearby military base now use the land illegally.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Villagers have accused a Cambodian army officer of illegally receiving title to a protected community forest in the remote north-western province of Oddar Meanchey.

A representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and representatives from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Cambodia's oldest human rights organisation, have been asked to intervene in the land dispute.

Last year, Lieutenant Van Limeng sued 13 families from the village of O'Chab Trey, Anlong Veng district (pictured), for farming the dispute land without permission. He asked for US$ 20,000 in compensation.

Faced with charges that he took the villagers’ land, the officer said that he holds a valid title deed to about 10 hectares.

The villagers have countered that he claims 75 hectares and that his deed is dated 2014, years after the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or UN-REDD Programme) came into effect.

ADHOC provincial coordinator Srey Naren said he and a UN representative from the UNHCHR’s Battambang bureau visited the area last week.

They found that the disputed land indeed lies within the O’Sophy Kiri Prey Srong community forest, a 64 square kilometre area recognised by Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture and protected under the UN’s REDD+ program, through which forests are meant to be conserved in exchange for carbon credits.

The project was set up to protect forest cover in all community forests in Oddar Meanchey, but conservationists say it ran into issues, in part because of the great number of soldiers who had settled in the area at the time, making it difficult to police illegal clearing.

Oeun Nak, head of the O’Sophy Kiri Prey Srong community, said only 10 square kilometres of the forest have remained pristine with most of its natural products and wildlife, especially the Banteng cattle, having been lost.