Establishment of monocultures of fast-growing trees to produce so-called fast-wood has accelerated in Cambodia following the country’s transition to a market-oriented economy in the early 1990s. Proposed and established plantations under the development paradigm of ‘economic concessions’ include fast-woods acacia, pine and eucalyptus. The majority of these economic concessions violates Cambodian law and there is little evidence that they create the proposed benefits and income for the state.
Between September 2004 and March 2005, the Environment Forum Core Team (EFCT), a group of volunteer environmental activists conducted field-based research on four economic concessions in Cambodia. The EFCT is part of a network of environmentally orientated NGOs established by the NGO Forum on Cambodia in 1995. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, the EFCT looked at the likely benefits and disadvantages of economic concessions on local people’s livelihoods (see full report at http://www.ngoforum.org.kh/Land/Docs/Plantation
Among the investigated cases is the fast-growing tree plantation of the Wuzhishan LS Group in the Mondolkiri province. Wuzhishan was established as a company in May 2004; in August 2004 the company received permission to establish a 199,999 hectare pine tree plantation in Sen Monorom and Ou Reang districts of Mondolkiri province. The concession boundary also overlaps in part with the ‘Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area’.
In planning the concession, there was no consultation with the local communities, and extremely limited communication with the local authorities. There is no official publicly available map indicating the extent of the granted concession. In September 2004, Wuzhishan began operations in earnest, liberally applying the herbicide glyphosate to areas of the concession’s grasslands, burning the dead vegetation, and commencing the planting of 250,000 pine seedlings. In preparing the land for the concession, Wuzhishan has indiscriminately cleared not only grassland used by the local Phnong population for cattle grazing, but also spirit forests and ancestral burial grounds which are essential elements of the Phnong culture. The use of the herbicide was widely criticized by the communities: it is believed to have contaminated water resources, to have affected human health, and to have been responsible for the death of cattle.
Large protests erupted on 16 June 2005, when between 650 and 800 mostly Phnong people affected by the plantation protested in front of the company’s office in Sen Monorom town. This led the Council of Ministers to issue a Notification on 17 June 2005, ordering Wuzhishan to suspend planting immediately in all areas of the concession. An inter-ministerial committee was set up to resolve the problem.
Despite this, in late June, communities protested the apparent lack of progress and the company’s continued planting, blockading roads in the concession-affected communes. The affected communities were subsequently reported to be subject to numerous threats and intimidation tactics. The blockades lasted for around a week before the company broke it with trucks full of workers wielding hoes, knives and sticks.
The results of the investigation show that almost all households interviewed (98%) were engaged in agriculture and animal raising as their primary occupation. 65% said that the company’s activities had affected these agricultural activities, owing mainly to loss of farmland and effects from the spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. Many woman villagers reportedly do not now go out to farm because they are afraid company workers will rape them.
Interviewees reported a significant decrease in the availability of timber, which was mainly blamed on Wuzhishan having cleared the forest. The abundance of wildlife was also noted to have decreased as well as loss of habitat resulting from Wuzhishan’s activities.
At the time of writing the report, the precise extent of loss of assets for villagers was unknown, because the precise boundary of the plantation in the vicinity of villages remained under negotiation. Despite this, 57% of interviewees said that they would lose some of their farmland. Large areas of grassland away from the village centers, presently used by villagers for cattle grazing, are being lost. Natural forest and fruit trees (growing both in forests and on open grasslands) that are vital to non-timber forest product collection are being felled, and tracks used by the Phnong are being obstructed. Furthermore, animals, fruit and crops are being stolen by the company workers. Important cultural sites, namely, spirit forests and burial grounds, have also been destroyed. Legal recognition of land ownership is complicated by the communal ownership systems practiced by the indigenous Phnong people.
In total, 21% of the households interviewed said that they had members working on the plantation. Each worker worked for eight hours per day, and was paid between US$30 and US$42.50 per month, with several workers also receiving 25kg of rice per month. UNCOHCHR (UN Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) have described working conditions on the plantation as harsh. Interviewed villagers identified that: when sick they cannot ask for personal leave; they have to work hard; they do not get enough salary; they were worried by the alleged case of rape among the workers; there was pressure on them to work hard; and the workers stole sheep, dogs and cows from the villagers to eat. More recent reports (August 2005) indicate that most employees on the plantation are now migrant workers, and not local indigenous Phnong people.
The Wuzhishan concession has had serious negative impacts on the local, mainly indigenous Phnong, people’s livelihoods, provoking serious protests and necessitating central-level government to intervene in negotiations for a solution. A lack of consultation with the local population during the initial stages of the concession’s development has led to serious mistrust towards the company and a general feeling that local people’s concerns are not being adequately addressed. Similarly, local government departments and the local authorities were not consulted and have been left on the sidelines in the decision-making process. Asked how they felt about the company, 11% of the households interviewed said they did like it because they could get work but 88% said they did not like it.
Since the report has been published, affected community people have tried to continue the dialogue with the government. In October 2005, officials from the Ministry of Environment conducted an environmental and social impact assessment in less than two days. The assessment -that has so far not been publicized- found no environmental impact and blamed the social impact on unreasonable demands of the villagers. The position that local communities were too demanding and uneducated to understand ‘development’ has since been reiterated in several meetings of community representatives and government officials. Recently, commune councilors from the affected area in Mondulkiri province have been taken on study tours to the capital and ‘further developed’ provinces to learn from the example. Civil society organizations were not informed and have been systematically excluded from supporting the communities. Indigenous Phnong villagers are afraid that the government will demarcate their community land without paying any respect to their traditional rights; rights that are clearly recognized under Cambodian law. Until now the situation remains unresolved.
Excerpted and adapted from: “Fast-wood Plantations, Economic Concessions and Local Livelihoods in Cambodia”, Environment Forum Core Team (EFCT), http://www.ngoforum.org.kh/Land/Docs/Plantation/EFC
T%20Plantations%20Report%20FINAL.pdf; Information updated by the NGO Forum on Cambodia.