A military lieutenant who sued 13 families in Oddar Meanchey’s Anlong Veng district for allegedly grabbing his land is now demanding $20,000 in compensation, though villagers deny the accusation and it remains unclear as to how the official initially came to own the ostensibly protected forest land.
The villagers, from O’Chab Trey village in Anlong Veng district’s Lomtong commune, today said that four of them were questioned this month at the Oddar Meanchey Provincial Court, where they were informed that Lieutenant Van Limeng was requesting $5,000 from each of the four. The compensation is for allegedly grabbing his land and destroying his crops.
“They said we destroyed [Limeng’s] mango and jackfruit plants, but I have never seen the trees and [I have not] destroyed [them],” said Lay Chhim, 51, one of the four villagers. “Other villagers were sued by Limeng, too. We are poor people and we cannot pay the compensation. He took our land and he is demanding $5,000 from each of us. It is not acceptable, and we have to protest.”
Villagers say the land in question falls in the O’Sophy Kiri Prey Srong community forest, which consists of 6,344 hectares of land and is registered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The community forest is listed as being part of Cambodia’s first REDD+ project, which was meant to protect the forest cover, though the program has proven highly problematic.
Limeng reportedly obtained land titles for some 75 hectares within the community forest, though it was unclear how. Multiple attempts to reach Limeng were unsuccessful.
Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said more than 20 villagers, including the four sued by Limeng, went to Adhoc today to seek legal advice before deciding to file a complaint with authorities for intervention.
“People said that [disputed] land is the community forest,” he said. “It is public state land. It is illegal when land titles are issued on forest [land]. It is corruption.”
Naren added he will visit the disputed area next month after villagers file the complaint.
Oeun Nak, chief of the O’Sophy Kiri Prey Srong community forest, said only some 1,000 hectares of forest land remain, and much of its natural products and wildlife, in particular banteng, have been lost.
He added that the remaining forest is threatened as district authorities plan to store heavy army weapons in the area.
“If the military takes the land for arsenal deployment, my community forest is almost gone,” he said, adding that the plan could be a pretext by authorities to clear more forest.
Hor Chin Virakyuth, district governor, said the military needs land, and local authorities have been studying potential locations. Once an appropriate location is identified, it will be sent to the national level for approval.
Chin Virakyuth declined to comment on the location local authorities will select, saying it was a matter of national security.