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Cambodian communities follow different routes to justice over Socfin rubber project

  • Ethnic Bunong people from Cambodia are taking their grievance against Socfin to a court in Paris.
  • The suit was presented by renowned lawyer Fiodor Rilov.
  • The decision to pursue a path to courts overseas has not been universally adopted by all the affected farmers and villagers, revealing divisions within the communities over the dispute.

Frustrated by what they say has been seven years of intransigence and injustice, farmers from Cambodia’s ethnic Bunong community are taking their quest for compensation and the return of their land from a multinational rubber plantation operator to the high court. In France.

Members of the Bosra commune in Mondulkiri province, in the east of the country near the border with Vietnam, launched a civil action in the High Court of Nanterre in Paris at the end of July accusing the company of businessman Vincent Bolloré of being liable for the loss of their land.

The suit was presented by renowned lawyer Fiodor Rilov who said local Bunong community members were seeking the return of their land and compensation amounting to 10,000 euros per person.

The presence of Rilov, who has consistently been the bane of big business in France, underlines the seriousness with which the farmers are pursuing their case. Bolloré finds himself personally in the firing line as his eponymous multinational group owns a majority share in the Belgian company Socfin which operates oil palm and rubber plantations throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, including the 7,000 hectares at the heart of the Mondulkiri dispute.

According to Samin Ngach of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, an NGO, it is now a question of patience.

“Since the complaint was submitted in court we have not had an update from our lawyers,” he told Mongabay. “We are hopeful that pursuing legal action through French courts then the ongoing land conflict in Bosra will be resolved as soon as possible.”

A waterfall in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province. Photo courtesy of Siveun Nhak/Wikimedia Commons

The decision to pursue a path to courts overseas has not been universally adopted by all the affected farmers and villagers, revealing divisions within the communities over the dispute.

This week several Bunong community representatives will meet with members of Socfin’s Bosra office for talks in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, moderated by a local NGO and facilitated by the country’s UN office. They too hope the issue over land is nearing a resolution.

“We hope, in the process of negotiation, this will be a big step forward,” Neth Prak, one of those attending the talks, told Mongabay. “There are a lot of problems still, not just the land problem but also compensation and unfinished projects that were promised to communities. … After solving the problem over land, we will move on.”

Those problems have proved difficult to solve. Back in 2008 the Cambodian government allocated 7,000 hectares of ancestral Bunong land to local company Khaou Chuly Development (KCD) to develop a rubber plantation. A year later that was bought by Socfin.

The Bunong people are believed to have lived in Mondulkiri for about 2,000 years, save for a brief period during the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge when many were forced to leave before returning. They live an animistic lifestyle that is closely tied to their land. They exploit only what they consume from their forests meaning minimal impact on the local environment.

They operate a self-governing and collective society and despite provisions in Cambodian law that supposedly allow ethnic groups to have autonomy over their lands, they claim no environmental impact assessment was conducted prior to the deal for the land near Bosra, nor were they consulted in a process to establish free prior and informed consent (FPIC).

The subsequent struggle for compensation has ultimately proved fruitless thus far for Bunong communities and the protests have often turned violent. A story in the Cambodia Daily in May detailed how villagers had surrounded the Socfin-KCD offices in Bosra and threatened to chop down the rubber plants if a solution to their grievances was not found within two weeks.

Neth Prak helped organize those protests and although he is hopeful the upcoming negotiations will yield progress he says he will have no hesitation reverting to a strategy of direct protest should the company fail to live up to its word.

For Samin Ngach, however, negotiation has proved fruitless.

“Socfin-KCD has never provided any positive response to villagers demanding the return of the land,” he said. “They have instead cheated and threatened villagers to accept their offer of relocation. … Moreover I believe they are deliberately trying to break the solidarity of the Bunong people.”

Vincent Bollore. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mongabay tried to contact, unsuccessfully, Socfin’s chief of administration in the area, Leang Sattia. But the company has consistently denied that there was anything illegal in its acquisition of the rubber concession and claims it has repeatedly tried to work and negotiate with communities to reach adequate solutions.

But it is not only in Cambodia that the company has come under fire from local communities for its operations. The Bosra protest in May was part of a series of coordinated protests that also saw demonstrations and actions in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

The Socfin Bolloré group has yet to follow the example of many other large international commodity producers and sign up to a no-deforestation policy governing its global interests.

Nor is the Bunong’s plight unique in Cambodia. Neth Prak says this is a normal situation for rural communities throughout the country due to the government’s policy which has seen “two million hectares of land given to economic land concessions.”

A report published by Forest Trends in August found that by the end of 2013, the Cambodian government had allocated 2.6 million hectares of land, equivalent to 14 percent of the country’s land base, to agricultural concessions. Of the 272 concessions allocated, more than 80 percent lie within forested areas.

The government sees rubber as a key crop in helping to boost the country’s economy. But recent reports have shown unrestrained rubber expansion is wreaking havoc on forested areas across Southeast Asia. A study published in Conservation Letters in April revealed how more than 70 percent of the 75,000 hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013.

Sap oozes from a rubber tree in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Simon Steinberger/Pixabay

Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.