Representatives of 14 ethnic minority communities in Ratanakkiri province on Friday accepted $1,700 each from Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) to buy a buffalo and hold a ceremony to appease the spirits that had been disturbed by the firm’s plantations.
The cash was handed over during a meeting in Banlung City brokered by the International Finance Corporation, which has put millions of dollars into a Vietnamese investment fund with a stake in HAGL, in a move that affected villagers and human rights groups described as a positive step forward.
Some 1,600 families have accused HAGL, which has three separate plantations in O’Chum and Andong Meas districts, of stealing land, spoiling rivers and destroying ancient burial grounds. The company has agreed to return some 10,000 hectares of uncultivated land to local communities.
So Sophat, the representative of an ethnic Tampoun community in Andong Meas district’s Malik commune, expressed pleasure on Friday that HAGL had acknowledged its wrongs. He said his community had allocated $1,200 for a 400 kg buffalo to sacrifice during the ceremony, while the remaining $500 would go toward food and wine to offer to the spirits.
“The money we received is not compensation, but recognition that they violated our ancestral lands,” he said. “We will take the money to buy a buffalo and food and hold a ceremony to apologize to our ancestors and spirit forests.”
“We are not totally satisfied because we want the land returned to the community,” he added.
Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, which has provided support to the communities, said HAGL’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing was only the first step in making amends to communities affected by the plantations.
“The vice president of the World Bank, the deputy director of the company [HAGL] and a deputy governor were here and we also discussed further plans to restore water sources that have been ruined by the company, and to demarcate plantation and village boundaries,” he said.
Asked why the company had been allowed to develop beyond the limits of its concessions in the first place, Yim Phan, the deputy provincial governor who attended Friday’s ceremony, said such things were hard to keep track of.
“The company did not come and create this investment in one day. It took a long time.”