Rubber Giant to Hear Villagers’ Complaints

More than 15 months after a Global Witness report revealed that Vietnam’s state-owned rubber giant had illegally cleared land and displaced communities in Cambodia, the company has announced that it will accept and respond to complaints from those whose lives it has damaged.

Vietnam Rubber Group, which counts the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) as a shareholder, has amassed more than 140,000 hectares of land through 19 economic land concessions in eight provinces, according to Global Witness.

The 2013 Global Witness report—Rubber Barons: How Vietnamese Companies and International Financiers are Driving a Land Grabbing Crisis in Cambodia and Laos—exposed how Vietnamese rubber companies were cutting often illicit land deals with the Cambodian government without consideration for the communities already living there.

Now, after extensive lobbying to take responsibility for the communities it has displaced and the destruction of forests they depended upon, VRG has announced that it is committed to resolving complaints, Global Witness said in a statement released Wednesday.

“The test now will be whether communities receive a fair resolution to their complaints. This should include financial compensation as well as alternative livelihoods to those lost as a result of VRG’s operations,” said Megan MacInnes, Global Witness’ land team leader.

Many of the VRG land concessions are in remote areas of the country and have displaced indigenous communities whose cultures revolve around the forests they inhabit. Those ethnic groups have also seen traditional burial grounds destroyed and replaced by rubber plantations.

According to Ms. MacInnes, Global Witness will work with VRG over the next two years to ensure that complaints are properly addressed. She said that ensuring that grievances are not ignored is a priority. “What has been agreed is that a receipt with a unique reference number will be issued immediately when each complaint, enquiry or request is received,” she said.

Complaints can be registered at plantation offices, VRG’s country office in Phnom Penh or by post, she said, and VRG has committed to responding to each within 30 days.

“The question is whether VRG’s member companies…actually follow this instruction and how strictly it will be enforced,” Ms. MacInnes said.

David Pred, managing director at Inclusive Development International, which advocates for displaced communities, said via email Friday that another Vietnamese rubber giant, the privately owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), had also agreed to some concessions.

HAGL, which is also partly funded by the World Bank and also accused by Global Witness of illegally clearing forests and displacing communities, recently went under the microscope of the IFC ombudsmen, who is now mediating negotiations between the company and affected communities.

“Company representatives have told us and the communities that they recognize that they have made mistakes and are committing to correct them,” Mr. Pred said.

“However, we are waiting to see whether this commitment will really be translated into the return of community land and sacred areas that the HAGL concessions illegally confiscated.”

Eang Vuthy, executive director at Equitable Cambodia, which has lobbied for the displaced communities, said that for some, there is no compensation that could be adequate.

“It is difficult to compensate. These are indigenous people and they have a different way of living, a different culture,” Mr. Vuthy said.

“Burial grounds and spirit forests cannot be replaced. And it also must be said, what they have done is illegal.”

blomberg@cambodiadaily.com

© 2014, All rights reserved.