Rubber barons are robbing Cambodia and Laos

This post was originally published on the New Internationalist website on 13 May 2013…

A new report from campaigning NGO Global Witness has revealed how big-name financial institutions, International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Deutsche Bank are subsidizing Vietnamese land grabs in Cambodia and Laos.

‘Rubber Barons’, published alongside a short film on Monday 13 May, is critical of a culture of secrecy around plantation investments. Two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) have acquired more than 200,000 hectares of land through deals with the Cambodian and Laos governments. Deutsche Bank has significant holdings in both companies, while the IFC invests in HAGL.

Cambodia and Laos have seen more than 3.7 million hectares of land handed over to companies since 2000, 40 per cent of which is for rubber plantations. The report explains a culture of corporate secrecy and shady connections with élites which mean that companies like HAGL and VRG get away with breaking the rules.

Land grabbing has accelerated in Cambodia over recent years, and so has the violence that surrounds it. By the end of 2012, 2.6 million hectares of land had been leased by the government, 20 per cent of which Global Witness says has been allocated to five of Cambodia’s powerful tycoons.

Laos has experienced a growing economy over the last decade that has attracted attention from foreign agribusiness looking to cash in on the quantity of arable land and cheap labour available. According to Global Witness, almost 20 per cent of all villages in Laos have been affected by at least one land grab. Forests are disappearing, along with journalists and activists who speak out.

Megan MacInnes, who heads the Land Team at Global Witness says that HAGL and VRG are adding to the human rights threat in the region: ‘Often, the first time people learn of a plantation is when the company bulldozers arrive to clear their farms,’ she adds.

Local people have complained of increased food and water shortages, loss of livelihood without compensation and poor employment conditions. Indigenous communities have lost burial grounds and sacred forests. Those who protest say they face violence, intimidation and arrest. ‘Rubber Barons’ outlines non-payment of compensation and routine use of armed security forces to guard plantations in HAGL and VRG’s operations.

The environmental impacts are also significant; the report accuses both companies of involvement in illegal forest clearance, beyond their concession boundaries.

‘Rubber Barons’ says that HAGL and VRG’s financial involvement lies behind an intricate web of shell companies, which allows them to disguise the fact that they have exceeded Cambodia’s legal limit on land holdings. Global Witness is calling for HAGL and VRG to be prosecuted for their illegal activities and for their plantation concessions to be cancelled.

‘Until governments bring in and enforce regulations to end the culture of secrecy and impunity that is driving the global land-grabbing crisis, international banks and financial institutions will continue to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses and deforestation they are bankrolling,’ says MacInnes.

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Cambodia’s bright future

First appeared in Buzz’s February 2011 issue.

Amy Hall explores the richly diverse cities, towns and countryside of Cambodia…

A tragic history is often the first thing that comes to mind when people mention Cambodia; often remembered for its time under he Khmer Rouge, led by dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s. It is estimated that 1.7million people died during this period through murder, exhaustion from working in labour camps and starvation. But despite its history, Cambodia is now looking to the future, and although there is still widespread poverty the country has enjoyed peace for many years.

We started off our trip in the country’s capital Phnom Penh, a bustling city with an edge of serenity amid the busy markets, motorbikes and tuk tuks. After a few days in the capital we travelled to Banteay Meanchey. It is well worth exploring beyond the typical tourist cities in Cambodia to see the endless rice fields and compact wooden houses, often on stilts, that populate the countryside. Ornate, brightly coloured pagodas and Buddhist temples poke out amongst the greenery and monks in their burnt orange robes are a common sight.

Battambang was our next stop; a bustling town which, although a popular travel destination does not scream ‘tourist central’. Nearby Siem Reap has greater tourist credentials being much the same as any other tourist destination and very different to the rest of Cambodia.

Just outside Battambang in Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s pride and joy. Angkor Wat sits at the centre of a city of temples and ancient buildings called Angkor. Spend at least a day exploring the city’s ancient temples, each with their unique story.

On the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped for a night in the sleepy town of Kampong Cham on the banks of the Mekong River. The influence of the former French colonial rulers is obvious to see in the architecture here. It is also common to see boisterous aerobic classes, led by energetic dance music, taking place along the riverfront.

From Kampong Cham it is easy to stop off in Skuon, or ‘Spiderville’ as it is known. One of Cambodia’s delicacies is deep-fried tarantula ans as soon as you pull in for lunch here, children decorated with spiders, dead and alive, will offer you some to try.

It is important to understand some of the history of Cambodia and during your trip you should certainly pay a visit to a museum such as Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre just outside Phnom Penh, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the city itself. Both give fascinating insights into Cambodia’s tumultuous history.

Today, Cambodia is a country rich in beauty, character and positivity. Many people with a high school education speak English and a simple conversation or glint in the eye will often demonstrate the mischievous Cambodian humour and generosity demonstrated by so many. Cambodia’s future is looking bright.

Where to Eat

Mith Samlanh is based in Phnom Penh and vocationally trains young people at risk from violence, poverty, drugs and trafficking. Many learn catering in one of their training restaurants. Don’t let the wo

rd training put you off though as the food and service is excellent. Romdeng Restaurant served more traditional Khmer food from the contemporary to ancient recipes.

What To Buy

You won’t be short of souvenirs in Cambodia’s markets and shops. The Russian Market in Phnom Penh is a great place to shop and there are also good markets in Battambang and Siem Reap. Of cour

se there are plenty of Buddha statues in various materials but to go for something truly traditional get a chequered scarf. Make sure you get your bartering hat on though and remember there’s nearly always money off for multi-buys.

Must See Or Do

Although it’s faster to travel by road from Battambang to Siem Reap, a boat ride is by far the most scenic way; passing through floating village life, narrow canals and then opening onto the Tonle Sap L

ake, a great expanse of water and greenery for as far as the eye can see. Try your luck at one of the little shops the boat will stop at selling traditional Khmer (Cambodian) food and various snacks. Including, as I spied at one shop, Cornish pasties!

Fights & Accommodation

The ideal time to go is between late November ad February when the weather is dry and not too hot. You can;t fly directly to Cambodia from Cardiff but you can fly to Bangkok and go from there. Alternatively,

go to London Heathrow where flights to Phnom Penh are £500-£700. The main cities have a range of accommodation to suit all budgets starting from $2 a night but there is less variety in more rural areas and you may have to use a hotel.

Thanks to Hannah Hendersonfor the great photos.

Dust From A Distant Sun: Cambodia’s Garment Workers

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 4 February 2011

Over 300 garment workers in Cambodia have lost their jobs after striking for a ‘living wage’ in the latest dispute between workers and bosses for better pay and conditions.

So why should you care? Well, next time you’re choosing your out-of-office / weekend attire, remember that certain high street brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M, get some of their clothes from many of the factories involved (according to Labour Behind The Label).

Before my own trip to Cambodia – alongside a reporting crew in December 2010 –  we had been briefed on the country: the cultural dos and don’ts, the weather, and what issues the country faced. One of the things that interested me particularly was that some freedom of speech was slowly being eroded in Cambodian society, and there were people who were becoming more reluctant to take part in strikes or protests.

While doing further research for the trip, a story about Cambodian garment workers clashing with police caught my eye . The workers had gone on strike after the suspension of a union official. I was curious after what we had been told so tried to find out more on my trip…

In Cambodia I had a chat with a local development worker Simorn, who works for DCA/CA’s Joint  Programme* (a partnership between Danish Church Aid and Christian Aid). Simorn said often the companies say no to things like higher wages because they have to pay out money for things like electricity, as Cambodia’s garment industry wasbadly hit by the recession.

Simorn also explained how some garment workers suffer abuse at the hands of management in the factories. Some union workers have tried to negotiate for better conditions but have had little success, and unrest among workers had been worsened by the assassination of one of the most popular and outspoken union leaders,Chea Vichea in 2004.

According to the president of the Cambodian Labour Federation, Ath Thom, the latest dispute over unfair dismissals involves 379 workers from 18 factories. But Ken Loo, the secretary general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said he thought these figures were inflated and that most of the suspended workers had been reinstated.

Ath Thom has appealed to the Prime Minister and sent a letter to the Ministry of Labour about the situation. According to Labour Behind The Label, the government has called on employers to reinstate workers, and the charity says the actions of employers are in contravention of the Cambodian Constitution and Labour Laws.

Now various NGOs and organisations, led by Clean Clothes, are calling for people to contact H&M, Gap and Zara to increase pressure on their suppliers and show their customers that they are committed to ‘freedom of association’ in Cambodia.

It’s your choice how you take action – but do acknowledge that our Cambodian brothers and sisters need our support; support that is warranted, as we, as the consumers of the products they make, play a part in this equation.

Dust From A Distant Sun: Community Spirit And An Explosive Past

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 20 2010

Boengsangke Village was abandoned until 1998 when 55 year old Voonthouk, the self described village ‘pioneer’, recreated a forward-thinking version of the village he had grown up in.

Accessible down a very rough road, the village is home to people implicated in all sides of Cambodia’s long and complicated conflict. With his one remaining eye full of pride, Voonthouk, a former government soldier, told us how he had gone in search of landless people dispersed around the countryside after the conflict, and taken them back to Boengsangke.

The village set-up is admired by surrounding villagers, who often ask for advice. Community Empowerment Facilitators from the organisation Life With Dignity (LWD) advise and inspire people into organising and helping fund projects such as the community pond. One third of the costs for the pond were raised by the villagers, and the water benefits more than 100 families.

The community spirit is represented by the large pagoda at the heart of the village, a simple open barn that is beautifully decorated with a sea of stunning homemade bunting and decorations. The villagers worship here, but also meet to make plans for the village, tackle any crises and relax. There are charts, maps and pictures on the wall; outside there are colourful flowers and a peaceful stream.

In many ways Boengsangke is a model village: decisions are made as a group through various committees, including a Women’s Committee and Youth Committee which raises awareness about HIV and marriage rights. The villagers told us that due to regular discussions, the levels of domestic violence, a problem prevalent in Cambodia, are now much lower than in other villages.

We were confronted with the hardships that face much of Cambodia’s, mainly agriculturally reliant population when we visited the household of an industrious widow, a lady admired throughout the village for her hard work and determination. It was clear that this was no easy existence: While she owned the land her small house was built on, she did not own any farmland which, in rural Cambodia, means that a family is unlikely to have a sustainable livelihood.

The widow was brought to tears when she talked about her fears for her children’s future as she gets older and is less able to do so much manual labour. Like many Cambodians, her son has migrated to Thailand to work as a construction worker, while her oldest two daughters help her out in the home. Her youngest daughter was lucky enough to be in school, but it was clear this woman had to do a lot to make this happen. It is currently harvest time and she works as a farm worker all day and through much of the evening. She supplements her income by collecting bamboo to sell from the forest, an activity that is incredibly dangerous in an area littered with land mines.

There are three to five million land mines still undiscovered in Cambodia. We met Sysarang, a 39 year old pig farmer who volunteers as a point of contact for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. When people find mines in the area, Syssrang leads a specialised team to their location. Boengsangke is surrounded by beautiful open space, but the villagers can’t wonder freely without risk of a land mine exploding.

There is a lot we could learn from the village of Boengsangke in Britain: like the importance of community space, and how important it is to tackle issues of stigma and empowerment to make changes in our own communities.

Poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare mean that many villagers face an uncertain future, while land-mines trap the community in a constant state of fear. I was left with the realisation that any way of life is rarely perfect, but we always have something to learn from each other.

Photos thanks to Hannah Henderson

Dust From A Distant Sun: Looking Ahead

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on November 29 2010

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history blighted by genocide and violence. An incredible 80% of the population is under 30 years old, as many lost parents, grandparents and older siblings when an estimated 1.7 million died under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

20 volunteers will be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks to do on-the-ground reporting for Ctrl.Alt.Shift; visiting various local development organisations, finding out about the work they do and the issues they face. The organisations we will be visiting work in a variety of areas, including HIV/AIDS, women and children’s rights, community organising and violence against women.

We will be visiting the capital Phnom Penh and travelling to Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot Cham and the awe inspiring temple Angkor Wat, which has been described as the 9th wonder of the world.

Cambodia descended into violent chaos during the Vietnam War after bombing by the US and a military coup which overthrew the monarch King Norodom Sihanouk. The radical Communist group the Khmer Rouge eventually gained control of the country, led by the notorious Pol Pott. During this time the name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea.

The middle classes, people not of pure Khmer ethnicity, the educated, the disabled, workers for the government and city dwellers were particularly persecuted by the regime, and essentially an entire class was wiped out by this extreme brand of militant communism. Money was abolished and people were forced to live in villages and work in agriculture. Much of the population died of starvation and exhaustion.

Although this tragic history has inevitably had a great effect on the current situation in Cambodia and has shaped the present circumstance of its people, there are still a lot of inspirational stories to be told.

Throughout our trip we will be writing a blog where you can find out more about the kinds of issues we’ll encounter, the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn along the way.