The Vietnamese Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) company, the majority shareholder of several economic land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, on Friday rebuffed accusations that it had logged forests and forced evictions, claiming that its activities improved the environment and the livelihoods of locals.
Through several companies, HAGL said it holds almost 40,000 hectares of land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, about four times more than a single company is allowed to hold under Cambodian law.
In May, environmental watchdog group Global Witness released a hard-hitting report saying that HAGL oversaw the destruction of high-value evergreen and semi-evergreen forest in Cambodia, seized people’s land and destroyed their livelihoods, in particular the indigenous population of Ratanakkiri whose cultural identity depends on spirit forests.
During a visit to Cambodia on Friday, Nguyen Tan Anh, assistant to the chairman of HAGL, said that the accusations against the company were wrong, claiming HAGL was helping local communities as well as the forest.
“We try our best, and we don’t come here to damage the life of the people,” Mr. Tan Anh said.
“When we invest in Cambodia the target is not just profit but to improve the life of the people in our concessions. That comes from our heart and we care a lot about this,” Mr. Tan Anh said, adding that his company planned to stay here for “a long time.”
“People here are very poor and uneducated and they have no health care or food, but we come and cut the bad trees and make better forests and make a better life for the people,” Mr. Tan Anh added.
Mr. Tan Anh’s visit comes at the end of a week of revelations that extensive and systematic logging of rare and protected species of trees is underway in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. Commune and district officials said they are powerless to do anything, while the provincial governor said the logging was taking place in an “unofficial” land concession.
Mr. Tan Anh claimed that HAGL bore no responsibility for any of the country’s rampant deforestation, which saw a loss of more than 7 percent of forest cover over the past 12 years—the fastest deforestation worldwide after Malaysia, Paraguay, Indonesia and Guatemala.
According to Mr. Tan Anh, the logging of forest to clear the way for HAGL plantations is outsourced to local companies. Therefore, any deforestation was not HAGL’s responsibility. “We do not log timber but we have agreements with companies and they log the timber and sell it. So we don’t do the logging,” he said.
The companies logging for HAGL, Mr. Tan Anh said, were Cheng Bo Ying Co. Ltd. in the 9,952-hectare concession of Hoang Anh Ratanakkiri; MDHL Share World Co. Ltd. in Hoang Anh O’Yadav’s 9,000-hectare concession, and Savan Prasith Investment and Construction Co. Ltd. in the 9,470-hectare concession held by Hoang Anh Andong Meas.
HAGL holds 91.17 percent of the shares in each of the three subsidiary Hoang Anh companies, of which one has another two subsidiaries: Heng Brother Co. Ltd. and C.R.D. Co. Ltd., which hold land concessions of 2,360 and 7,591 hectares, respectively.
Mr. Tan Anh maintained that his conglomerate had no affiliation with Hoang Anh Lumphat, a company holding a concession inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary where systematic logging was reported this week. Asked to explain why Hoang Anh Lumphat’s registered business address is at the same location as the HAGL head office in Vietnam’s Gia Lai’s province, Mr. Tan Anh said that he did not know.
“It’s a big building [HAGL head office], any company can register there,” he said.
Mr. Tan Anh admitted, however, that the five HAGL subsidiaries: Hoang Anh Ratanakkiri, Hoang Anh O’Yadav, Hoang Ang Andong Meas, Heng Brothers and CRD CO, were set up in compliance with Cambodian law, which stipulates that one company may not hold more than 10,000 hectares in land concessions.
“We needed to find a way to invest here and we were advised on how to obey the law…. We are the majority shareholder of these three companies but not 100 percent. They are three independent companies,” Mr. Tan Anh said.
HAGL, he said, is also improving forest cover in Ratanakkiri.
“If we see a very poor forest we cut it and build another one [rubber plantation] so that the new one can support the life of the people,” he said. “When we come here, we bring a new life [to the people].”