Today sees Phnom Penh host the “4th Rubber PLANT Summit” – an event promoting foreign investment into Cambodia’s expanding rubber plantation sector.
With the promise of Cambodia’s abundant “unused land” splashed across the event’s website, many of the rubber industry’s big names have flown in looking for cheap, available land.
There is just one problem – this is in blatant violation of the moratorium on new economic land concessions, announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in May 2012 as a response to both growing social unrest within Cambodia and condemnation from the international community.
Cambodian rubber plantations already cover 1.2 million hectares and make up 80 per cent of the country’s total economic land concessions.
The media regularly features struggles between rubber companies and local communities fighting to protect their land and forest.
In May 2012, just 10 days after the moratorium was announced, Heng Chantha, a 14-year-old girl, was killed by the authorities during a land dispute between affected local communities and a rubber company in Kratie.
A year later, the Global Witness report Rubber Barons revealed how two of Vietnam’s largest rubber companies were acquiring vast amounts of land across Cambodia and Laos, devastating local livelihoods and the environment in the process.
Land grabs have already affected more than 700,000 Cambodians and the issue is now threatening to reach boiling point.
The problems surrounding the ever-growing numbers of dispossessed communities have factored highly in recent anti-government protests.
Further expansion of agricultural investment, without a complete rethink of how such concessions are managed, is highly likely to push the country into deeper instability and chaos.
The 4th Rubber PLANT Summit’s website celebrates the fact that the “Rubber Plantation Boom in Cambodia (is) driven by Government Initiatives!” and states that a Sri Lankan agribusiness has said it will “set up a 15,000 hectare rubber plantation in Cambodia.”
This claim not only ignores Cambodia’s moratorium, but also its legal limit on any one company being allocated more than 10,000 hectares.
With such legal, social and political uncertainty for those acquiring land, it is hard to imagine why any company would consider investing in Cambodian rubber. According to one global agribusiness representative, attending the summit is part of their attempt to make the rubber plantation industry more responsible.
Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, any further investments into Cambodia’s rubber sector will only do the opposite and responsible investors should run a mile.