A year after some 2,000 families filed a complaint with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for financing rubber plantations they accuse of grabbing their farms and logging their sacred forests, all sides have finally agreed to a set of ground rules for negotiations and hope to settle the dispute by December.
As the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, the IFC has put at least $12 million into a Vietnamese investment fund that in turn has a stake in Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which owns the rubber plantations in Ratanakkiri province that are at the center of the dispute.
The families, from a total of 17 communities across the province, filed their complaint with the IFC in February 2014. In May, they agreed to let the IFC’s ombudsman mediate negotiations with HAGL.
According to a joint statement released last week, the sides finally agreed in January to ground rules for these negotiations, allowing substantive discussions on the dispute to begin.
“The mediation process is by nature private between the parties concerned. However, with regards to the ground rules, the parties have agreed to share these,” said Emily Horgan, a spokeswoman for the ombudsman.
According to a copy of the rules, the sides are aiming to have the dispute settled by the end of the year, but can choose to extend the talks.
The rules bind both sides to secrecy. They say all discussions and documents shared in confidence must remain private, and that anything one side wants to make public must be agreed to by the other.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, one of the NGOs helping the families, said two meetings had already been held using the new rules since they were agreed upon in January. He would not elaborate on what was said, citing the rules, but he said this secrecy could prove useful.
“This process requires the parties to sit down together,” he said. “Sometimes when you raise things in public, it can cause problems.”
Sol Noeuy, a spokesman for the families, said he was happy with the ground rules but remained wary of reaching a settlement with HAGL. Though the plantations have adhered to a promise they made last year to suspend clearing in disputed areas, he said they had broken several promises before.
“I am happy with the document, but I am not sure the company will be able to provide a solution to the affected people,” he said. “We are worried and afraid the company will not respect the agreement.”
HAGL has denied any wrongdoing and said it abided by all applicable local laws and regulations.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)
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