A "major breakthrough" has been reached in discussions between Vietnamese rubber giant Hoang Anh Gia Lai and 11 indigenous communities in Ratanakkiri province that have lost land and resources to the company’s plantations.
During a three-day meeting with community representatives, NGOs and its own subsidiaries, the firm, commonly referred to as HAGL, reiterated its pledge “not to carry out any further clearance or development” in these areas before making a slew of additional commitments to the affected villages, according to a joint statement issued by the participants on Saturday.
The two sides have been embroiled in a years-long dispute over economic land concessions (ELCs) run by subsidiaries of HAGL, which residents claim have encroached on land that they legally own and depend on for their livelihoods.
Among the allegations, HAGL is accused of widespread deforestation outside of its concession boundaries, polluting streams with chemicals used in its plantations and even sexual abuse.
Commitments made in last week’s talks included repairing and maintaining roads and bridges that have been damaged by its operations, and only using chemical products that comply with environmental regulations.
HAGL also agreed to organise joint visits to each of the 11 affected villages with local authorities, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders to determine whether it has encroached on community land. If violations are found, HAGL will “offer compensation” or “return the land to the community”, the statement adds.
The pledges follow a landmark agreement last week with three other indigenous communities – Ket, Nay and Kachout villages – which lie within HAGL ELCs but had not yet been directly affected by encroachment.
The company apologised to all 14 communities for the impacts of its operations, and offered representatives of each village a 400-kilogram cow and $500 “as an offering for their spirits”, the statement says.
It also agreed to restore affected water sources and to “adopt an operational grievance mechanism in relation to their agribusiness operations in Cambodia”.
Sal Hleuy, 60, a representative of Kachout village, said he was “happy” with the outcome of the talks but “would like to see all of the promises on paper and their actions afterwards”.
Representatives of HAGL could not be reached yesterday.
Last year, the firm said it was looking to expand its agricultural operations in the Kingdom. In 2013, the group came under fire when NGO Global Witness published a damning report on Vietnamese rubber concessionaires in Cambodia, which alleged that HAGL held land through its subsidiaries totalling about 47,000 hectares – almost five times the legal limit.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, said last week’s negotiations marked a “positive step forward” for the dispute’s resolution.
“This is a good result and we hope that the company will follow [through on] their commitments, continue to engage and make further progress.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAING VIDA