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

November 11, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

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 [caption id="attachment_7528" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Hea Samoeun and family"]Hea Samoeun and family[/caption] 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?]]>