A mid a growing uproar over certain Vietnamese rubber firms violating Cambodia’s land law while abusing villagers and deforesting vast swaths of the country, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday envisaged a vast expansion of the industry.
In the same week that UK watchdog Global Witness released a scathing report accusing Vietnamese rubber firms of perpetrating a “land grabbing crisis” in Cambodia and Laos, Hun Sen boasted that the industry here could soon overtake the Kingdom’s eastern neighbour.
“In the next few coming years, we can have more rubber than Vietnam. We dare to speak about this point as we have exchanged the ideas with Vietnam, which has no land to extend,” Hun Sen said at the opening of a new rubber processing plant in Stung Treng province.
“So at the time [when] Vietnam has no land to extend, Cambodia still has more land to extend [to plant rubber].”
While more than 280,000 hectares of 1.5 million hectares the government had granted as economic land concessions were being used to cultivate rubber, this could be expanded to one million hectares in the near future, the premier predicted.
The prime minister’s figures were vastly below those reported by civil society groups including Adhoc, Licadho and Global Witness.
In its report Rubber Barons, released on Monday, Global Witness found that 1.2 million hectares of a total of 2.6 million hectares already granted as ELCs in Cambodia were for rubber plantations.
Of this, the report found that 161,344 hectares had been illegally granted to state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group and at least 47,000 hectares were illegally granted to private Vietnamese firm Hoang Anh Gia Lai.
That amounted to 16 and five times, respectively, the legal limit placed on ELC holdings for a single company in Cambodia to firms that Global Witness alleged had brutalised villagers and engaged in large-scale illegal logging.
Hun Sen made no mention of the Global Witness findings yesterday nor of a spate of incidents in the past two weeks that have seen employees of rubber firms arrested for beating children close to death and burning down people’s homes in disputes over land.
But he did talk up the future opportunities for common folk to profit from the “huge” expansion of rubber plantations, once they felt they felt secure from the threat of land grabbing, noting that small holders accounted for 38 per cent of all rubber concession holdings.
“When there is safety to hold land certificates, the farmers will flock to grow rubber in the coming time,” he said, referring to the national land-titling scheme which was launched last year to provide hard titles to villagers affected by endemic land grabbing.
Hun Sen also said companies needed to offer competitive salaries and accommodation to address a labour shortage.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party whip Son Chhay questioned why the premier would choose to talk about local development of the rubber industry and Vietnamese investment in the same breath.
“Is he serious about developing the country and bringing Cambodia up to the level that we can compete with the neighbouring countries? First, you look at the local resources; you cannot look at the neighbouring countries all the time,” he said.
Chhay, who is on his way to investigate abuses committed by rubber companies in Ratanakkiri province, including the bulldozing of ethnic minority burial grounds and clearing of protected forest, said the public was sick of Vietnamese rubber firms grabbing land.
“They are not just taking the forest land, they are taking the peoples’ land and the ethnic minority people’s land and they just beat them up,” he said.
Nicolas Agostini, a technical assistant at rights group Adhoc, said the rubber industry was a “quintessential example” of how the government was systematically trying to transform farmers into wage labourers.
“This is an economic process we have seen in many countries around the world. The problem is that in Cambodia, in addition to this process, there is a violent political regime,” he said, stressing that those most affected were ethnic minority villagers in the northeast.
“In Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri, many of the rubber concessionaires are Vietnamese companies. So it is quite an irony to claim to compete with Vietnam when actually much of the rubber produced in Cambodia ends up being for Vietnam.”