The great Cambodia land grab

The great Cambodia land grab

Locals are fighting a losing battle as rubber companies take over their land and, as a report last week reveals, international banks are helping to pay for the plunder

Ask Sreap Samoen where are the communal grazing lands? Where can local villagers fish and grow crops? The 50-year-old woman with a weather-beaten face points into the distance and says: "It's all gone. The company has it now."

STRIPPED BARE: Villagers walk through recently cleared forest inside a HAGL rubber plantation. Locals once relied on this land and forest for their livelihoods.

She's standing near a cluster of tiny shacks in Cambodia's remote north, hidden in the Dong Nai rubber plantation owned by the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). "Many people have lost their land," she says before wandering off.

For more than a decade villagers have pestered and protested against Cambodia's elite over the granting of massive Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) to multinationals. NGOs and Western governments have also expressed their concerns over land and the widening wealth gap, but few listen.

Last week was no different.

Global Witness released a 49-page report on alleged illegal land grabs by two Vietnamese companies, state-owned VRG and privately owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) with investment backing from Deutsche Bank and International Finance Corp (IFC), a wing of the World Bank.

It was released about the first anniversary of the death of Chhut Vuthy, a prominent environmentalist killed by security guards while investigating land grabs, and Heng Chanta, a 14-year-old girl shot dead not far from here, again by security guards during a village protest over land.

The response from Prime Minister Hun Sen was typical. He announced more rubber plantations would be grown and on a vast scale _ seemingly indifferent to the plight of hundreds of thousands of impoverished people who have lost their land or been bullied into selling at rock bottom prices.

''In the next few years, we can have more rubber than Vietnam. We dare to speak about this point as we have exchanged ideas with Vietnam, which has no land to extend,'' he said.

This came after Hun Sen declared earlier this year that one in 10 Cambodians will work on rubber plantations. He also said, in response to complaints that the great push towards rubber was furthering deforestation, that his government considered mono-culture rubber plantations as forests.

Vietnam is the world's third-largest rubber producer while Cambodia, according to the Global Witness report ''Rubber Barons'', is ninth, raking in US$200 million (5.95 billion baht) in export earnings a year.

No doubt the potential for riches is great but as the report notes, this money does not find its way into government coffers, nor is it spread among ordinary Cambodians, a third of whom earn less than 200 baht a day. Instead it remains in the hands of the few, known in the country as the Khmer Riche.

ALL DRIED OUT: : A woman and her son walk through rice fields they lost to a HAGL plantation in Laos.

The report also notes how farmers in Cambodia and Laos were promised compensation in return for their land, which government authorities said was needed ''in the national interest'' so all Cambodians could become wealthy.

Global Witness says HAGL and VRG's operations are characterised by a lack of consultation, non-payment of compensation and use of armed security forces while protected intact forest have been cleared, contrary to protection laws, and apparently in collusion with Cambodia's corrupt elite.

''Those who protest face violence, intimidation and even arrest, often by state authorities who are meant to look after them but who instead choose to protect the Vietnamese companies. These cases are shocking, but they are far from unique,'' Megan MacInnes, head of the land team at Global Witness, said.

''Until governments bring in and enforce regulations to end the culture of secrecy and impunity that is driving the global land grabbing crisis, international banks and financial institutions will continue to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses and deforestation they are bankrolling.''

To be fair, managing Cambodian land issues is fraught with difficulties.

Thirty years of war, the Khmer Rouge policies of the mid to late 1970s that took the country back to Year Zero _ when money was abandoned and the cities emptied of people _ and 18 years of communism have all but ruined any manageable system of land titling.

Land ownership is recognised through the occupier based on laws established by the time Vietnamese occupation ended in 1989, but there is very little paperwork or legal proof beyond a person's word.

Deutsche Bank and IFC said they were examining the findings and calls by Global Witness to divest their interests in both companies held through Vietnamese investment funds. VRG has remained tight-lipped, however. HAGL has rejected the allegations after the company's stock nosedived on the back of the report's findings.

''There's no way HAGL has left locals impoverished since we have paid tax and created stable jobs for more than 10,000 people,'' its chairman Doan Nguyen Duc was quoted as saying in the Vietnamese press.

ALL GONE: Sreap Samoen stands in a field near a plantation owned by Vietnam Rubber Group. The land it occupies used to belong to local people, she said.

Hun Sen also insists he has moved to resolve outstanding disputes ahead of elections due in late July.

Last year under Directive 001 he issued a moratorium against any further ELCs, however, the laws did not apply to those already being negotiated and thousands of more hectares have since gone.

He has also dispatched thousands of youth volunteers into the countryside to measure land holdings, resolve disputes and issue land titles. Western NGOs have also deployed cartographers as part of a long-term programme designed to complete Cambodia's land ownership scheme.

Nevertheless, the Global Witness report is just one of dozens that seem to contradict governments and big business at every turn on issues of land.

The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in its annual report that of particular concern was the increased use of force and live ammunition on people protesting the land grabs.

''These instances of violence were predominantly unprovoked, and primarily related to land disputes,'' it said.

Human rights group Licadho has estimated that 2.1 million hectares, equivalent to the size of Wales, has been transferred in Cambodia from subsistence farming to large industrial firms since 2003. It also says about 400,000 people have been affected.

According to the Global Witness report VRG and HAGL have acquired more than 200,000 hectares of land through a series of deals with the Lao and Cambodian governments that lacked transparency.

It noted that investments made in these companies by IFC and Deutsche Bank stand in stark contrast to their public commitments on ethics and sustainability, as well as the World Bank's core mandate to end global poverty.

''We've known for some time that corrupt politicians in Cambodia and Laos are orchestrating the land grabbing crisis that is doing so much damage in the region. This report completes the picture by exposing the pivotal role of Vietnam's rubber barons and their financiers, Deutsche Bank and the IFC,'' Ms MacInnes said.

''Both companies are having severe impacts on the human rights of ordinary Lao and Cambodian citizens. Often, the first time people learn of a plantation is when the company bulldozers arrive to clear their farms,'' she said.

The report found HAGL concessions also included 28,000 hectares inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary and Virachey National Park, both protected areas. Of other concessions held by both companies, their perimeters had been widened by illegal logging and land was often granted despite the government's ''Leopard Policy''. That policy was designed to protect communal land, which is shared among villagers for water, fishing, cattle grazing and growing crops. It's the type of land that Sreap Samoen says no longer exists in Tuol Ta Muong, where VRG has established vast rubber plantations.

WORKING FOR THE MAN: A Vietnamese worker digs a trench at a HAGL rubber plantation in Cambodia.

RICH PICKINGS: Most of the money made from harvesting rubber wood is pocketed by an elite few.

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