Cambodia = Singapore or Myanmar? What does the future hold for a people still recovering from the Khmer Rouge?

November 11, 2011

Horror and beauty, crazy climate, Pink Floyd in Phnom Penh and anyone for cricket? Final impressions of Cambodia

November 11, 2011

Cambodia: community forestry v land grabs is more complicated than I thought

November 11, 2011
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An edited version of this post appeared on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog yesterday

Last week in Cambodia, some questions on forestry and development came into sharp relief. I visited a region where Oxfam’s local partners are helping local indigenous people develop community forestry and resist the encroachment of foreign companies (as well as Cambodian ones, and the odd party or army boss) intent on logging the native forest and replacing it with rubber plantations. I expected a black-and-white case but, as so often happens, found a much more complex picture. If you prefer your discussion of development restricted to goodies v baddies, better stop reading now.

First the community forestry: the village of O Preah in Kratie province (northeastern Cambodia) is home to 67 families of the Phnong

Hea Samoeun and family

Hea Samoeun and family

indigenous group who have set up a rather successful Community Resin Association. They tap resin from 3 species of local trees and sell it to varnish and paint producers in Cambodia and neighbouring countries, and since they formed a producer association to market collectively, things have been going well.

Until now. We met Hea Samoeun, chief of the resin collectors, on the veranda of his well-built wooden house on stilts (see pic), above a jumble of 5 gallon drums emitting the pungent perfume of the resin. His account of the conflict was quietly angry:

‘Dong Nai/Dong Pu (a Vietnamese company) has been trying to invade our land since June 2009. We tried to talk to the Commune Council, but they just told us to get jobs on the plantations. I think someone’s bribed them – why else would they support the company? We don’t want to work for the company – resin collecting is what we have done for years. The company tried to negotiate by offering us $3 a tree, but if we agree they will cut down everything, so the community said no. They came back and offered us $200 per family and some land for 2 years for 7 families, or jobs on the rubber plantation, but we still said no.  Why?  Because in one day we can earn maybe $12 from collecting resin and still have time for fishing. The company pays you $3.50 and you work from morning to night.’

Dong Nai/Dong Pu was granted the land under the Cambodian government’s recent ‘Economic Land Concessions’ law – large parcels of land are handed out to investors, usually foreign, for logging and industrial agriculture. The problem here is that the ELC overlaps with the community forest, whose resin trees are also protected by law. But land titles have only been introduced in Cambodia in the last decade (previously all land belonged to the government), so the land rights of Mr Samoeun (as with most Cambodian farmers) are legally murky.

And here’s where the politics and power kick in. The law is only part of the story, and sometimes it seems a fairly minor part (although Mr Samoeun shows us his carefully filed legal complaint, adorned by 67 red ink thumbprints from the largely illiterate villagers). Mr Samoeun again:

‘We’ve met them a few times – they have a Khmer-speaking Vietnamese rep – and they said nicely, but with a warning tone, that this is company land and they will continue logging. But it is illegal under the land law to log resin trees – the Forestry Administration tells us it should be up to 5 years in jail for cutting down a single tree. The government claims the community agreed to give up the land, but has never shown us any document (and the law says it should be published).’

The two sides are currently at a stand-off: when the community went to the forest to protest, the company stopped logging, but only after it had cut down 1,400 of their 3,400 resin trees. The concern now is that they and their allies in government are just waiting for the 2013 elections to be over and the nursery rubber trees to be ready for planting, and then the logging will resume.

stump of resin tree + cleared forestNext Mr Samoeun summoned a local car and we headed out down the dirt track to the ELC, past a rudimentary road block and even more rudimentary security. We got to the ELC and the contrast couldn’t be clearer (see pics) – blackened stumps of logged resin trees on a grass plain awaiting planting right next to the tumultuous diversity of the remaining forest, with a single forlorn ‘protect the forest’ sign nailed to one of the trees. I dip my fingers in a resin hole of one of the remaining trees and the intense perfume accompanies me for hours.

So far, so black and white. But wait. On the way back, we pass dozens of neat rows of worker housing and a clinic, all built by the company. The rubber plantation will provide jobs for 20 times (maybe more) as many people as currently make a living from resin collecting – poor Cambodians migrating into the forest from the lowlands. After all, rubber tapping is just a form of organized resin collection. Provided wages and conditions are acceptable, isn’t that development too? The compensation that Dong Nai/Dong Pu offered was better than in many similar situations elsewhere in Cambodia and the company stopped logging at the first protest – that’s not what we’ve seen in far bloodier land grabs in Uganda and elsewhere. One local NGO even holds them out as a model of good practice.

Cambodian activists counter that the plantation jobs are badly paid, and will go to incomers from the lowlands rather than locals (so what?); that the loss of biodiversity and other ‘environmental services’ (don’t you hate that term?) is an issue; that indigenous people do badly when they migrate from their home village. Apples and pears – culture and economics; economic rights v indigenous rights v human rights (all supposedly indivisible). If the process was fair and transparent, it might be possible to argue out the pros and cons, but politics, power and corruption obscure and skew every decision.

As for Mr Samoeun and his people, it’s incredibly hard to see a successful outcome other than dogged resistance + fingers crossed. Formal laws and politics are often a shadow play, while the decisions come from informal and unaccountable power and money.

Can we make a convincing business case for a different approach, and would investors even listen? Could a pro-poor investor make a decent profit and pay decent wages (e.g. for rubber), or buy their products from smallholders (with government or NGO support, as we are currently doing in several countries with Unilever)? And would officials support such an effort (especially if it extended to not paying bribes)? Our outgoing country director thinks this is (one) way forward. NGOs have made some progress on other value chains, e.g. pharmaceuticals, garments or supermarkets, by being propositional and working with progressive businesses to develop the business case. Might it work for forests too?

Like I said, a much more complicated picture than I was expecting – what have I missed?

17 comments

  1. You are right, it is not black and whit, but from where I stand it is not that murky either. I guess there are two separate issues at stake: Which side in the conflict occupies the moral high ground (who is entitled to our sympathy), and what is the right way forward.

    First the question of morals: the way you describe it, my sympathy lies with the villagers. Yes, the company would create jobs and “development” and is not all that bad compared to some others in that business, but should that really be enough to earn our applause? The way I see it, is that the company showed up and cut down more than a third of the resin trees that are an important source of income for the whole community. While one can (and I surely do) take the position that “we always did it that way” is not a valid reason in itself to block development policy, the community had a clear right to be consulted before anything happened.

    Now, the way onwards: you say that turning the land into a plantation would create far more jobs than its current use. Not knowing the situation myself, I would still question if an intelligent capacity building approach could not have reached the same goal. Why not invest money (private or governmental one) into the community so that they can intensify and professionalise their resin business? That way, everybody wins.

    If I were to make a business case for a forest project, I would probably underline that fact that while a plantation can probably create more jobs on paper than a village cooperative, locally created jobs are more likely to be long-term and sustainable. Destruction of natural forests does have costs and these could be minimised using a local approach. You should be trying to convince officials by pointing out that the local support that an inclusive measure brings may be more profitable for them in the long term (while bribes could lead to problems for them).

    Your examples wbout other value chains (which are very different from each other) show that a sustainable approach is possible in a vast array of settings. I see no reason why this should be different for forest products.

  2. I was just beginning to write something very similar to Peter Dorrie: from your descriptuion Duncan, it seems to me that there are baddies, the turning point for me coming when I read how the rubber company cut down one third of the resin trees.

    As to what can be done: it can be seen as a straight battle between two commodity miners. There’s a big demand for rubber (for autos in East Asia, I guess?) so the rubebr company has the economic (therefore also political) clout. The only answer would seem to involve identifying, and getting the paint and varnish companies – the buyers/consumers of the resin – to demand the rubber company leaves off. That of course depends on how much power they have…

    1. Thanks John, but why is one kind of resin (for varnish) essentially better than another (for rubber)? So if they cut down 3,000 of one kind, and plant 300,000 of another, what’s the problem (apart from biodiversity, which I accept is an issue). As an industrial crop, rubber is always going to be more labour intensive than wild forest resin.

  3. I think you missed the part where the rubber plantation company was illegally given forested land that belongs to someone else – in this case, the village of O Preah. It doesn’t matter if that company is offering ‘good’ wages. The dynamic will change from one where people made decisions about their lives, to one where the company — which can lower wages, fire people, or go bankrupt at any time — does so.

    1. Thanks Augusta, but are you saying that only self employed jobs ‘count’ in developing countries (when many of us in the North would rather avoid that in our own lives)? Do workers in a company with decent labour rights have less say over their own lives than if they are working for themselves? Supposed there was a functioning trade union on the rubber plantation, would that swing it?

  4. So ends justify means, you mean?
    It’s dangerous to argue, as the national government no doubt would, in favour of any large-scale change because it brings (?)”development”. In this case, we don’t know whether the company will ultimately be fairly beneficent and working conditions may be quite good; but the fact is that so far,varying levels of intimidation (and carrots as well as sticks) seem to have been employed to get the land off the current population.

    “Progress” in the form of 300,000 rubber trees may indeed be inevitable. The ends don’t justify the means. Oxfam over many years has supported organisations of rubber tappers,forest dwellers and indigenous people in Brazil. My understanding is that this wsasn’t out of some romantic attachment to their lifestyle; it recognised that massive change was inevitable – and can bring great benefits too – but the bottom line is that minorities have rights (and if the rights of minorities are defended then the rights of other, larger groups – like plantation workers – are also more likely to be protected).

    1. Yep, this is where the rubber hits the road (sorry) and it gets really tricky. Economic development almost always a combination of ‘creative destruction’, Schumpeter-style. But a rights-based organization finds it very hard to accept the destruction part if it violates those rights. One of our Cambodian staff said she couldn’t accept development if it had a negative impact on a single person. Doesn’t leave much, does it? We really do struggle with trade-offs, and trade-offs are a pretty unavoidable aspect of development, in my view

  5. In fact the question the case raise is: what kind of development/economic model we want? Do we want the land to be owned by the tillers? Do we want to support local economy (meaning producing resin for lolcal consumption)? Do we want small scale exploitation of the forest? ,Or do we support export-based forestry (can we really call a rubber plantation a forest?), owned by foreign compagny, subject to the demands of external forces, with wage workers that are not unionized (try to start a union in Cambodia, we will then talk about your survival chance!) and have few bargain power in addition to being at odd with local community. So this is not so much about culture versus economy, but about economy for whom and in what kind of framework.

    1. Thanks Genevieve, but I would add another question – who is ‘we’? Let’s assume ‘we’ refers to the Cambodian people, rather than outsiders – is it then ‘the people who currently live inside the forest’, ‘the people who currently live inside the forest and their children and grandchildren’, ‘poor Cambodians, including lowlanders looking for jobs’. In each case, I think you arrive at different conclusions.

  6. I think the people who steal things from poor but self-sufficient entrepreneurs are pretty clearly the bad people.

    Surely it is legal to “spike” trees that you own (especially if they are labeled as such)?

  7. You get different answers for each of those groups listed, as you say Duncan. Trade-offs are inevitable. But it boils down, i think, to the short-sightedness of a definition of “economic development” we’re all too familiar with: only what can be monetised counts, and only what is most profitable survives. Ecosystems have no value, and human rights (including labour rights) too are valued only up to a point (to the point where they don’t interfere with profit).I think it is proper for a rights-based organisation to resist what is happening here both for moral reasons (as Peter first said) and to try to create a better definition and policies, of development. In 20 years maybe things will be OK in Kratie; or maybe it’ll be seen as a disaster, with no forests, no fish, polluted rivers, hotter temperatures and altered rainfall and the workers moving on and out to the next boom crop or the nearest town. In the longer-term, I’m not sure that benefits any part of Cambodian society.

  8. Hi Duncan, No, I’m not suggesting that only self-employment counts in development. It’s the issue of having taken away property rights from local communities I have a problem with, and taking away their powers of decision-making over those resources. I would say that if everything is one the up-and-up concerning the remaining piece of land, ownership and use by an ethical company offering decent salaries and housing, is great and should probably be encouraged.

  9. There is already a lot of research on rubber in SE Asia and as you say in another blog we should do a literature review before we act (and perhaps comment). Vietnamese communities have done very well out of rubber with various models of operation (State run farms, outgrower schemes, etc). The trade off was the displacement of some, but certainly not all, local people. In a vibrant Vietnamese economy with lots of jobs available the trade off is probably justifiable. In Cambodia I don’t have enough information to conclude. As you say the decision makers should be the people rather than us “experts”. I just wonder in Cambodia whether Free, Prior Informed Consent and Fair Compensation really is being implemented.

  10. Duncan, you are raising a very utilitarian perspective to development and social justice. Of course, difficult trade offs need to be taken, as in any society. The conflicting interests of the majority vs a minority, the individual vs the collective are the essence of politics. Apart from the actual outcome benefitting majority or minority, the process of regulating the conflicting interests is key. It relates to democratic procedure and the rule of law. And democracy is of course much more than the will/dictactorship of the majority. A functioning democracy has institutionalised protection of minority rights. This gives people confidence in the state and society, and bonds people together in a social contract.
    But thank you for provoking this interesting debate. As the devil’s advocate, I hope…

  11. In my opinion even the economic argument is a poor one. What happens if the price of rubber goes down to a level where its no longer economic to farm. All the village is unemployed and don’t own the land. There needs to be ecomonic diversity as well.

  12. All too true.

    What exacerbates the land grabbing in Cambodia is overall weak land governance and a very corrupt Land Ministry led by Senior Minister Im Chunn Lim and a very loud rent seeking Head of Land Sar Sovann. This pair of land pirates have been fully backed by donors – Finland, Germany and Canada, who add fuel to the fire by backing the rorts. Donors and Technical Advisors (TA) are well rewarded and even awarded medals by the government – akin to accepting the 30 pieces of silver. Frequently in professional fora and journals we see the TA presenting fictitious accounts of achievements all based on headline grabbing rather than reality. In particular the Finn TA team leader is a notorious purveyor of this fiction as recently presented in “Coordinates” magazine writing on “Improving land administration systems in developing countries”.
    http://mycoordinates.org/improving-land-administration-systems-in-developing-countries/

    Donors like the incompetent Finn team consistently fail to provide a balanced, factual account of the land sector of Cambodia. Human rights abuses and violent land evictions are of no concern to these mercenary TA. Of course the land sector’s weak governance has not improved in spite of NGO complaints to the World Bank and the subsequent screwed up World Bank Inspection case which was largely a cover and a failed attempt to lower the bar in order to re-engage with the government to keep its country program running.

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