The characteristics of natural rubber make it a competitive material for industrial and medical uses, but products related to transportation, tyres and tyre products, are by far the largest single end market for natural rubber: they account for over 50% of consumption.
Though natural rubber cannot be easily substituted by synthetic rubber derived from petrochemicals, its price and demand are closely linked to that for synthetic rubber, which is in turn strongly influenced by oil prices. Thus, demand for natural rubber rises as oil prices rise. In the current context of high oil prices, demand for natural rubber has increased and translates in pressure on the land where rubber trees (hevea brasiliensis) can be grown.
Today most rubber is produced in South and Southeast Asia, with Vietnam having a growing role producer and trader country, being the third producer country after Indonesia and Thailand. A new report from NGO Global Witness has revealed the increasing pressure for land of Vietnamese companies in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos resulting in land grabs in both countries, financed by international investors including Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private lending arm of the World Bank. Two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) have acquired more than 200,000 hectares of land through deals with the Cambodian and Laos governments.
The “rubber barons”, as Global Witness has named the Vietnamese companies that since 2000 have taken up more than 3.7 million hectares of land, 40 per cent of which is for rubber plantations, have moved in secrecy and shady connections with local elites in Cambodia and Laos, primarily benefitting only the elites, whilst the costs are paid by poor rural communities and their surrounding forest ecosystems.
The thorough research of Global Witness has revealed that “very little information is available regarding land concessions in Cambodia and Laos. There is no publicly available cadastre of land holdings, no information about the areas the governments are targeting for investment, no disclosure when companies begin negotiating a land lease and no information about the beneficial owners involved. Environmental and social impact assessments, if done at all, are not released to those potentially affected. As a result, in the majority of cases, the first local communities in either country know about a company being given the land and forests on which they and their ancestors have lived is when the bulldozers arrive and start digging it up.”
Both Vietnamese companies are involved in clearfelling intact forest within and beyond their concession boundaries. Along with the destruction of forests also the indigenous peoples’ sacred forests and burial grounds disappear; local people complain of increased food and water shortages, loss of livelihood without compensation and poor employment conditions.
The report also denounces that: “when people have had their land and forests grabbed by a company, one of the most significant barriers to justice, getting the land back, or even compensation, is the lack of access to data: who took their land, the boundaries of the concession, what the land is being used for and what environmental or social impacts from the project are anticipated.”
When communities resist, armed security forces come in support of the investors subjecting local people to harassment and jail. Land grabbing has accelerated in tandem with the violence that surrounds it.
The report from Global Witness, “Rubber Barons” is available athttp://www.globalwitness.org/rubberbarons/