World Rainforest Movement

Cambodia: Indigenous people confronted with a rubber plantation empire

In the remote Cambodian province of Mondulkiri, the villagers of Busra feel their future fragile and uncertain since the Cambodian government has decided to grant an economic concession to a project of rubber plantation on their ancestral lands. Some of them have sold their land thinking that money was the only reliable thing they could get after months and months of defiance and mistrust. Their mistrust was turned against Khaou Chuly Development (KCD), the Cambodian shareholder denounced for its brutal methods and more recently against its partner in the joint venture between Khaou Chuly and Socfinal, a subsidiary company of the Bolloré Group, key actor in the rubber plantations in Africa.

In December 2008, the tension was so high as well as their need to be heard, that hundreds of ethnic Bunong villagers from the Busra commune protested against the company Khaou Chuly, perhaps the most important construction and engineer company in Cambodia, who had started clearing the forest and fields close to their village. The demonstration turned violent as the villagers torched and smashed vehicles belonging to the company. People were angry because the company’s land clearing disrupted their agricultural activities, as family farms and crops have been destroyed to make space for the rubber trees nursery. The land, 2,700 hectares, was granted to the joint venture Socfin KCD by the government late in 2007.

According to the villagers, the company offered them three options: relocate the families on other farmland of the same size; pay a compensation to the families who would accept to leave their land; let them stay on their land if they produce rubber and they will get a share of the profit from the company. But at that time, these solutions did not appear fair to the villagers who simply asked to get their land back (Cambodia Daily, December 22, 2008).

Few days after the protest, a meeting was organized, at the Busra referral commune hall, attended by villagers, company representatives, commune, district and provincial authorities, commune councilors, villages’ chiefs and NGOs workers.

There, 1,030 families from seven villages -the majority of them Bunong- declared that the land belonged to them, because they have been using it for their rotational farming activities since decades, and they have legal ownership according to the Land Law, which protect indigenous common property rights. The meeting failed, as the villagers accused the authorities of being biased in favor of the company. According to the authorities, villagers will benefit from the company, getting new jobs, hospitals, schools and houses for rubber workers. But the villagers didn’t agree, and claim instead that if anybody wants to improve the living standards of the people, they should come and discuss with the people first, not just send equipment and start clearing land (Cambodia Daily December 24, 2008). The company represented during the meeting wasn’t just Khaou Chuly but a new entity, Socfin KCD, who wasn’t mentioned by the national media.


Only on April 8 2009, it was announced by the daily newspaper Phnom Penh Post that a joint rubber deal had been signed, between “France’s Socfina and the Khaou Chuly Group to create 10,000 hectares rubber plantation and processing facilities in Mondulkiri”. The President of Khaou Chuly declared that “his company was providing 30% of the total capital, with the other 70 percent to be supplied by the French company.”

In fact, the name of Socfina seems to be wrong as everybody on the field talk about Socfin. According to our research, this company is based in Cambodia, directed by Philippe Monnin, a French expert in rubber plantation who worked for years as consultant for the Cambodian ministry of Agriculture on projects of family scale rubber plantations in Kompong Cham province.

On the web (www.socfinal.lu) it appears that Socfin KCD is owned at 60% by Socfinasia, with is held at 53% by Socfinal, a holding based in Luxemburg. Socfinal is a mixed group, which is controlled by Belgian families, amongst them the Fabri, and held at 38% by a French financial and agribusiness group, lead by Bolloré. Questioned on the main shareholders of Socfin in Cambodia, a source gave the names of the French Vincent Bolloré, and the Belgian Hubert Fabri. Two names that come again and again in this galaxy. So Socfin KCD is one of this constellation of companies involved in the rubber plantations in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Congo (RDC), Kenya, Cameroon, Liberia and Indonesia and… Cambodia. A recent article by the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique informs us about the activities in Africa of the Bolloré group (Port, rail, plantations: le triste bilan de Bolloré au Cameroun, www.monde-diplomatique.fr April 2009).

Socfin KCD is also one of these subsidiary companies of companies founded with cross holdings, a system that allows the shareholders, always the same small group of persons, to save a maximum profit and pay minimum taxes. Of course they are located in tax havens where the profits disappear. A very interesting investigation written by a French journalist, Martine Orange, has been published in February 2009 by the web newspaper Mediapart (the investigation is available at this address:www.mediapart.fr/files/Bollore_iliad.pdf).

This opaque world of the finance, the people of Busra have no idea about. They can not imagine the benefits a rubber plantation can bring on the long term; their land is bought between 200 and 300 $ per hectare (that’s the range of prices given by watchdogs in Busra, and is very low compared to average price). Now the tension has fallen, and has left to division, disillusion and mistrust: some people are hopeless, while other are confident in the bright future that the company disclose to them. Socfin KCD does not skimp efforts: they invited the local VIPs to a meal washed down with plenty of beer and offered a huge show to the villagers during festivities which included the most famous comics of the Cambodian scene, sexy girls and beautiful fireworks.

Recently, the Agence française de développement, the French Development Agency (AFD) has visited the place. They might be interested to support family rubber plantations around the Socfin KCD concession, and they are going to ask for a social, economic and environmental impact assessment of the concession project. None of such assessments has been done before granting the concession.

The villagers still complain, they want to be part of development, and do not want that others choose for them. They want to be considered and they want their culture to be valued and respected. Socfin KCD continues to work, especially on communication and public relations. Other actors, government, authorities, international organizations, are silent. Will the villagers let them convince or will they resist? And who will support them in this struggle?

 

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