Rubber company expelled from Forest Stewardship Council
Rubber giant expelled from the world’s leading forest certification body, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) due to illegal land and forest clearance in Cambodia.
In November 2014, Global Witness, that works on corruption in natural resource management complained to the FSC about illegal activities of Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). FSC found that the state-owned company had illegally destroyed at least 50,000 hectares of forest for its rubber plantations in Cambodia, including wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas.
VRG destroyed some of South East Asia’s most important remaining forests, with indigenous communities forcibly displaced in the process
Patrick Alley, a Founding Director of Global Witness
FSC Forest Management certification allows companies to label their products, which in turn enables consumers to identify and choose products that support responsible forest management.
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.
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 blamed the Cambodian government, 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.
High levels of corruption are common in the Cambodian land sector, with bribes paid by investors is reported to be as high as $2.6 million dollars. This results in not just environmental destruction and human rights abuses, but often violent conflicts over land.
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.
The FSC Complaints Panel found that:
- Land allocated for VRGs rubber concessions was reclassified from state public land to state private land while it still retained significant public value.
- Environmental Impact Assessments were not properly evaluated and land claims from indigenous communities were routinely ignored
- 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.
- 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.
The VRG website still displays the FSC certificate that is valid till September 2016.
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. 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.
The Rubber Barons report
Featured image: Grab from the Rubber Barons film/Global Witness