Environmental advocacy group Global Witness on Wednesday criticized an international forest management council for giving recognition to a Vietnamese state-owned rubber company accused of grabbing land from villagers in Cambodia and Laos.
Global Witness said it was seeking clarification from the U.S.-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) over its recent decision to recertify the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) following its suspension in November 2013.
The FSC advocates responsible forest management around the world and assures consumers that products such as natural rubber come from plantations that adhere to certain social and environmental rules.
“The Vietnam Rubber Group and its subsidiaries have been grabbing land from communities and systematically flattening some of the Mekong region’s last intact forests,” Global Witness campaigner Ali Hines charged in a statement.
“The council risks greenwashing such egregious behavior and tarnishing its own reputation if it continues to associate with the company,’ she said.
The FSC suspended VRG’s certification last year over allegations of land grabbing and environmental damage in Cambodia and Laos, where the company extracts latex and processes rubber timber for export.
VRG’s concessions in Cambodia cover about 150,000 hectares (370,660 acres)—roughly the size of London—and about 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) in Laos.
It is one of Vietnam’s largest rubber companies and has a number of member firms that go under different names in the two countries, some of which operate in direct violation of the laws for land concessions, Hines told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Support from Adhoc
Chhay Thi, the Ratanakiri provincial coordinator of the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, supported the complaint Global Witness filed with the FSC about VRG.
“The company’s rubber buyers should investigate the case properly,” he told RFA.
“Most of the time, we have received complaints from villagers about land grabbing and forest destruction,” he said. “Those companies have abused the government law and indigenous people’s rights.”
Last month, VRG said it would improve communication with local communities affected by its activities in Cambodia and Laos in response to requests from London-based Global Witness.
VRG also started a community consultations program for its 21 plantations in the two countries to compensate locals for farmland or trees claimed by its activities, according to a report by Vietnam’s Thanh Nien News.
Global Witness welcomed VRG’s moves but said it remained concerned about the persistence of illegal logging activities inside and outside concessions granted to the group.
“If the FSC wants to maintain consumers’ trust in its brand, it must conduct a proper investigation and immediately dissociate from VRG should the company be unable to disprove claims of wrongdoing,” Hines said.
‘Rubber barons’ report
In a May 2013 report on “rubber barons,” Global Witness pointed out that VRG had signed deals with the Cambodian and Lao governments to lease vast tracts of land without getting permission from those who lived in the areas or compensating them for their land.
The group said this had “disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment.”
Impoverished families and indigenous peoples living in the areas faced food and water shortages as well as the loss of their burial grounds and sacred forests with little or no compensation, the report said.
Those who resisted were often met with violence, arrests, and detentions by armed security guards who worked for the company.
VRG defended itself from the charges, saying the governments of Cambodia and Laos had approved its rubber plantation projects and excluded farmland and areas of significant forest cover from its concession areas.
The company also said local authorities remained in control of forests inside and outside plantation boundaries.
Global Witness had also accused VRG and its member firms of having high-level connections with members of the Cambodian government and partnering with an illegal logging syndicate.
It cited FSC’s certifying body as saying that VRG had offered insubstantial counter-evidence to the claims Global Witness put forth in its May 2013 report.
“Given the outstanding allegations, it is shocking that the FSC has done a U-turn on VRG’s certification,” Hines said.
“This case highlights major concerns within the FSC around company compliance which urgently need to be addressed,” she said.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.