Rubber giant Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) has been expelled
from the world’s leading forest certification body, the Forest Stewardship Council
(FSC), following an investigation into illegal land and forest clearance in
Cambodia. Responding to a complaint submitted by Global Witness last November,
the FSC found that the state-owned company had illegally destroyed at least
50,000 hectares of forest for its rubber plantations in Cambodia alone,
including wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas.
“The FSC investigation provides further evidence that VRG has destroyed some of South East Asia’s most important remaining forests, with indigenous communities forcibly displaced in the process, and is forcibly taking land from its rightful owners and destroying livelihoods - with untold and irreversible effects,” said Patrick Alley, a Founding Director of Global Witness. “The FSC has done the right thing by dropping them from its certification scheme. Now VRG needs to urgently take action to address the damage it has caused.”
Following Global Witness’ complaint, the FSC Complaints Panel spent five months investigating evidence in Cambodia that VRG subsidiaries were taking indigenous peoples’ land without their consent, and illegally clearing intact forest containing internationally protected wood species like rosewood - both within and beyond their concession boundaries. The impacts are significant.
According to the FSC, VRG’s Cambodia concessions cover nearly 100,000 hectares of land - an area almost as large as London or Manila. It also has rubber concessions in Vietnam, Laos and reportedly in Myanmar.
The Panel concluded that VRG and its subsidiaries in Cambodia routinely ignored indigenous land claims, permitted illegal loggers on the concessions and allowed armed government-backed military police to threaten protesters. During the conversion process VRG also destroyed thousands to tens of thousands of resin trees, which are an important source of income communities. This was done without providing adequate compensation, under a ‘take it or leave it’ arrangement that left local communities with little choice but to accept low payments.
The Panel also lays blame with the Cambodian government, which it accuses of routinely failing to implement and enforce its own laws on community land rights and forest protection. More than 2 million hectares of land have been handed over, largely without the knowledge or consent of the people who live on it, creating widespread land conflicts. This has made Cambodia a high risk area for those wanting to invest in land.
“The Cambodian land sector operates behind a wall of secrecy,” said Alley. “It is characterised by high levels of corruption, with bribes paid by investors to access land reported to be as high as $2.6 million dollars. The result of this is not just environmental destruction and human rights abuses, but ongoing and often violent conflicts over land. As long as these conditions persist, responsible investors should be wise to steer clear of land-based investments in Cambodia.”
To regain its certification, the FSC requires VRG to fully compensate the communities whose land and resin trees were taken, carry out full environmental impact assessments, and undertake significant forest restoration. VRG has appeared to have taken some steps towards remedy: in August 2014, the company announced that it was opening its doors to receive and process complaints from people affected by its plantations. However, the company has so far failed to adequately address any specific complaints through this mechanism.
“The Vietnam Rubber Group needs to make good on its apparent commitment to resolving the widely reported harmful impacts of its operations, not only in Cambodia but also in neighbouring Laos,” said Alley. “We are yet to see the company provide any meaningful compensation to villagers whose livelihoods have been destroyed by its concessions. The company must start providing restitution through its grievance mechanism, which has been created for this very purpose.”
Notes to editor:
1. In May 2013, Global Witness revealed in its Rubber Barons report how VRG were driving a wave of land grabs for its rubber plantations in Laos and Cambodia, with disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment.
2. VRG received FSC certification for two of its rubber plantations in Vietnam in 2007. The certification was suspended in November 2013 under the FSC Policy for Association, in place to ensure that the FSC only associates with companies committed to principles of responsible forest management. The suspension was lifted in June 2014, prompting Global Witness to submit a formal complaint in November of the same year.
3. The FSC Complaints Panel found that:
- In order to establish its plantations VRG converted forest over at least 50% of the approximately 100,000ha it holds in Cambodia
- The land allocated for VRGs rubber concessions was reclassified from state public land to state private land while it still retained significant public value. Only lip service was paid to requirements for public consultation prior to allocating the land
- Environmental Impact Assessments were not properly evaluated and land claims from indigenous communities were routinely ignored
- The amounts of royalties collected from companies who cleared forest for VRGs concessions were a very small fraction of the required amounts
- VRG allowed illegal loggers to use the land over which it has control to be used for the housing of illegal loggers and the transport of illegal timber. These occurrences constitute clear and convincing evidence that VRG was involved in illegal activities in Cambodia
- During the process of securing land, armed government agents intimidated and used violence against protesters. In one case on the VRG Tan Bien concession, a community was laid siege and neither food nor medical supplies were allowed to enter over an extended period of about two months. Protest leaders travelling to a meeting with authorities were detained and imprisoned before being later released without charge
- VRG destroyed High Conservation Values of several types during its conversion of forest to rubber plantation, including the destruction of thousands to tens of thousands of resin trees; and the destruction of significant parts of two wildlife sanctuaries and one protection forest.
4. FSC’s decision to disassociate means that VRG and its subsidiaries will lose their member ship of FSC and their FSC Forest Management certificates they hold. FSC Forest Management certification allows companies to label their FSC products, which in turn enables consumers to identify and choose products that support responsible forest management.