A Vietnamese agribusiness company in eastern Cambodia has illegally cleared old-growth forests, wetlands and spiritual sites on land that it pledged to return to indigenous communities. The land move reneges on promises the company, Hoang Anh Gia Lai, made in a mediation process with the World Bank.
New reports from eastern Cambodia say a Vietnamese rubber company has illegally cleared swaths of land in Ratanakiri province belonging to local indigenous communities, in violation of a World Bank-mediated agreement to return the land to local residents.
The agribusiness company, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), pledged in 2015 to return land within its rubber concessions to local communities. But as residents have sheltered at home due to COVID-19, the company has cleared much of the land, bulldozing sacred sites known as spirit mountains, burial grounds, traditional hunting areas, wetlands and old-growth forests.
According to some human rights lawyers, land concessions in Cambodia have displaced around 770,000 people since the early 2000s. This displacement has made land tenure a critical issue for people across the country.
According to Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International, two civil society groups working with the communities in Ratanakiri, HAGL’s agribusiness operations in the area have resulted in environmental and human rights violations.
“Foreign investors must be held accountable for any violations and harmful impacts when they ignore due process, including consulting with communities and gaining their consent,” Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, told the media last year.
“The pagoda is a place of religious worship for the Khmer people, but my people believe in the spirits that inhabit the forests and mountains,” said Sev Suen, a community representative from one of the villages in the area. “Now that the company has cleared our spirit mountain, we have no place to pray and the spirits will be very angry with our villagers for allowing this to happen.”
The indigenous groups never consented to the company’s operations on their territory and the plantations have since led to the destruction of forests and the pollution of their water. As a result, the indigenous residents have seen major negative impacts on their livelihoods and health—many are no longer able to fish, hunt or harvest forest products to the extent they need.
“HAGL’s destruction of these sacred places is heartbreaking, and the fact that this company used the cover of a global pandemic to unlawfully clear more indigenous land is particularly egregious,” said David Pred, executive director of Inclusive Development International.
The government ordered the land returned to local residents
In March 2019, the governor of Ratanakiri requested that the agriculture ministry return 742 hectares belonging to the indigenous communities as the land had been mistakenly included in HAGL’s concession and was vital “for the indigenous people to practice their beliefs, cultural traditions and to support their livelihoods.”
Dam Chanty, executive director of Ratanakiri indigenous rights group the Highlanders Association, said at the time the decision represented “an unprecedented recognition of indigenous land rights over business interests in Cambodia.”
Since last year, the villages have been waiting for the agriculture ministry to finalize the decision and for HAGL to return their land.
Indigenous groups push to hold Vietnamese rubber firm accountable through World Bank
The land dispute dates back to 2009, when the Cambodian government granted 19,000 hectares of land in Ratanakiri to HAGL, despite the fact that the land belonged to 12 indigenous villages.
Five years later, residents of the villages filed a complaint with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private lending arm of the World Bank, over the human rights and environmental impacts of HAGL’s land concessions. The IFC backs HAGL’s investments in Cambodia via a fund run by Vietnamese investment group Dragon Capital.
Through a mediated process, HAGL agreed in September 2015 to return the land that belonged to the communities. The company, community representatives and the Ratanakiri government then worked with the mediators to determine what land would be returned to local residents.
Before a final agreement could be reached however, HAGL pulled out of the mediation process, refusing to address issues of land and water rehabilitation and compensation for these and other damages. In March 2019, the indigenous communities filed another complaint with the IFC over the issue.
“Our struggle will not end until the company restores the forests and streams that it destroyed and compensates our communities for all that we have suffered,” said Sev Seun at the time.
“HAGL must respect its past commitments to the affected communities and resolve their outstanding grievances,” said Eang Vuthy. “The problem won’t end until HAGL repairs all the damage it caused, so we hope that IFC’s clients will encourage them to come back to the mediation table.”