A state-owned Vietnamese rubber company has been kicked out of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a U.S.-based group that certifies firms for sustainable forest management, over rampant illegal logging and human rights abuses on its Cambodian rubber plantations, the group said in a statement Tuesday.
The board of directors of the FSC voted to expel Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) in August after a five-month investigation into its Cambodian operations that was triggered by a complaint from U.K. environmental rights group Global Witness. VRG will officially lose its certification for its Vietnamese plantations in three months; its Cambodian operations were never certified.
In a statement released Tuesday announcing the decision, the council accuses VRG’s Cambodian operations—which comprise some 100,000 hectares of plantations across several provinces—of illegal logging, conspiring with authorities to mistreat villagers and destroying high-value habitat.
A report by the council’s Impartial Complaints Panel, also released Tuesday, says the plantations leveled forest land that still had significant public value, failed to consult with local communities and ignored their property claims, mishandled environmental impact assessments, and contracted logging companies that did not pay the proper taxes to the government.
“All of these could be considered as illegal actions,” the report says. “In addition, we have information showing that VRG occupied land to which it was not entitled by encroaching severely on river corridors and possibly by extending outside its boundaries.
“Evidence suggests that VRG also allowed illegal loggers to use the land over which it has control to be used for the housing of illegal loggers and the transport of illegal timber. The panel considers that these occurrences constitute clear and convincing evidence that VRG was involved in illegal activities in Cambodia.”
The report says the panel also corroborated accusations from local communities that the plantations had cut down thousands of their resin trees with little or no compensation and used authorities to intimidate them, including, in one case, laying siege to a village in Kompong Thom province for two months, preventing food and medicine from getting in.
Staff at VRG’s Phnom Penh office directed all questions to country manager Leng Rithy, who could not be reached. A request for comment sent to VRG’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City went unanswered.
In its own statement, Global Witness welcomed the council’s decision.
“The FSC investigation provides further evidence that VRG has destroyed some of Southeast Asia’s most important remaining forests, with indigenous communities forcibly displaced in the process, and is forcibly taking land from its rightful owners and destroying livelihoods—with untold and irreversible effects,” Patrick Alley, one of the group’s founding directors, said in the statement. “The FSC has done the right thing by dropping them from its certification scheme. Now VRG needs to urgently take action to address the damage it has caused.”
One of VRG’s plantations in Mondolkiri province, Binh Phuoc 1, has been fighting with locals since being granted a 5,000-hectare concession four years ago.
Nhan Mao, a local farmer, said the plantation had stolen more than 1,000 hectares of land from some 200 local families, who say they have been farming the land for generations.
“We have never received a solution since we lost our farms in 2012 because the authorities always protect the company,” he said. “About a month ago, authorities came to the villagers and warned them that they would be arrested if they dared to protest against the company.”
VRG’s loss of certification with the council does not come with any penalties. But Global Witness campaigner Ali Hines said it could end up hitting the company in the pocketbook.
“The FSC is the world’s leading certification body for the forestry industry, and by giving its stamp of approval to companies it offers a level of assurance to both consumers and investors,” she said by email.
“Whilst we can’t predict what impact the FSC’s decision will have on VRG’s business, it does signify that VRG is a high-risk company.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)