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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cambodia: forestry and development, it's not always clear cut

Is helping indigenous people develop community forestry good for development, or is it better to let foreign companies log the native forest and replace it with rubber plantations?

By Duncan Green Thursday 10 November 2011 04.44 EST guardian.co.uk

Hea Samoeun is chief of the resin collectors in his village in Cambodia. Photograph: Duncan Green

Last week in Cambodia, some questions on forestry and development came into sharp relief. I visited a region where Oxfam's local partner is helping 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. First, the community forestry: the village of O Preah in Kratie province (north-east Cambodia) is home to 67 families of the Phnong indigenous group, who have set up a rather successful community resin association. They tap resin from three species of 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.

The Vietnamese company Dong Nai/Dong Pu has been granted the land under the Cambodian government's new economic land concessions law – large parcels of land are sold off to investors, usually foreign, for logging and industrial agriculture.

Hea Samoeun, chief of the resin collectors, said members are not happy. They spoke to the commune council, but were told to get jobs on the plantations. "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 two years for seven families, 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."

The problem is the economic land concessions law overlaps with the law protecting resin trees in the community forest. Land titles have only been introduced in Cambodia in the last decade (previously all land belonged to the government), so the land rights of Hea 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 Hea Samoeun shows us his carefully filed legal complaint, adorned by 67 red ink thumbprints from the largely illiterate villagers).

"It is illegal under the land law to log resin trees – the forestry administration tells us it should be up to five years in jail for cutting down a single tree," said Hea Samoeun. "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 at a stand-off. So far, so black and white. But wait. On a car journey, we pass dozens of neat rows of worker housing and a clinic, all built by Dong Nai/Dong Pu. 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 organised 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 (so what?), that the loss of biodiversity and other "environmental services" is an issue, and 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 and power obscure and skew every decision.

As for Hea Samoeun and his people, it's incredibly hard to see a successful outcome. The companies don't want to engage and 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 (eg for rubber), or buy their products from smallholders (with government or NGO support)? And would the government support such an effort?

Our outgoing country director thinks this is one way forward. NGOs have made some progress on other value chains, eg pharmaceuticals, garments and 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?

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