French owned plantation firm Socfin has restarted talks with indigenous villagers affected by its plantations in Mondulkiri province, with the UN saying the process could be replicated across a region dominated by agro-industrial firms.
An initial meeting between numerous companies, community representatives and local officials held on Tuesday in Mondulkiri’s Bousraa commune and supported by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was a “fruitful discussion”, according to OHCHR’s Cambodia representative, Wan-Hea Lee.
Lee said that the process was aimed at creating new avenues for dispute resolution based on the model of a “tripartite committee” first attempted by Socfin KDC – a joint venture with local company Khao Chuly Development – on a smaller scale in 2009.
In late 2007, the government began granting concession land to Socfin KCD, which now controls two economic land concessions covering almost 7,000 hectares in the commune.
Since then, some villagers have alleged they have been asked to sign documents they did not understand ceding land to the company, while others say their small properties were simply bulldozed.
While now sounding a positive note, the UN has in the past noted that the Socfin committee has been criticised “for being an ineffective communication channel to address grievances that had long existed and tensions that had already escalated”.
However, a Socfin spokesman yesterday said that recently elected community leaders would “ensure an effective representation of the population” in future meetings with government officials and Mondulkiri-based company representatives.
“The purpose of [Tuesday’s] meeting was to gather all organisations, NGOs and companies settled in the region as well as public authorities and to introduce the representatives of the population that were elected,” the spokesman said.
Sok Ratha, the provincial representative of local rights group Adhoc, said the companies attending Tuesday’s meeting had heard the villagers’ demands and requested reports from civil society on the impacts of their operations.
“We presented our data we’ve gathered about the affected communities . . . No solutions have been reached yet; it depends on the information the companies receive,” he said.
While firms in the region point to investments in education and health as examples of positive social impacts from their presence in Bousraa, rights groups have documented numerous alleged violations over the years, including irregularities in the approval of concessions, forced evictions, inadequate consultation and harsh working conditions for those employed by plantation companies.