A Vietnamese rubber company locked in a protracted dispute with more than 1,000 families in Ratanakkiri province has offered to return 15 “spirit mountains” to ethnic minority villages in an effort to appease the communities affected by the firm’s plantations.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) agreed to return the spirit mountains—small mounds where ethnic minorities make offerings to the spirits of deceased ancestors—in nine villages across Andong Meas and O’Chum districts, according to a statement issued on Wednesday by Equitable Cambodia, an NGO assisting the communities.
The restoration of streams and expansion of existing burial grounds were among other commitments agreed upon during meetings between NGO and HAGL representatives last week, following trips to the communities in April and May.
About 1,600 families have accused HAGL, which has three separate plantations in O’Chum and Andong Meas, of stealing land, ruining rivers and disturbing ancient burial grounds. The company has agreed to return some 10,000 hectares of uncultivated land to local communities.
Sol Noeuy, a representative of the Kachok indigenous people in Andong Meas’ Talao village, said the return of the spirit mountains was long overdue.
“Now we are waiting for officials to come here and demarcate the areas” for the spirit mountains, Mr. Noeuy said, adding that the economic land concession was granted to HAGL without consulting the community.
Yim Phen, deputy provincial governor, agreed that the return of the sacred sites should have never been up for debate.
“It should not be a dispute if the spirit mountains are carved out,” Mr. Phen said.
Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, said the latest concession was another step in the right direction in the dispute, but maintained that there was plenty of work left to do.
“This is just good progress…between HAGL and the communities,” Mr. Vuthy said.
“After this investigation or assessment, the company agreed to return these spirit mountains and burial grounds while waiting for further discussions on remaining issues,” he added.
“The remaining issues are a lot. There are ongoing discussions on land and other concerns.”
In 2015, 14 communities accepted $1,700 each from HAGL to buy a buffalo and hold a ceremony to appease the spirits that had been disturbed by the firm’s plantations.