Vietnam rubber firms illegally take land in Cambodia, Laos, group says

BANGKOK, May 13 (Reuters) - Global Witness, a group that campaigns on resource issues, has accused Vietnamese rubber companies of illegally seizing swathes of land in Cambodia and Laos, and committing rights abuses in collusion with those governments.

Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), two of Vietnam’s largest companies, used thuggish tactics to evict people in Cambodia and Laos from forest land they depended on for their livelihoods, the group said in a report published on Monday.

HAGL dismissed the accusations saying it strictly conformed with laws in the countries in which it operated.

“I am completely surprised by this,” the chairman of the HAGL Group, Doan Nguyen Duc, told Reuters.

“I can affirm that these accusations are all fabrication and vilification ... I am unpleased when they issue the accusations without meeting us and working with us.”

VRG cold not be reached for comment.

Thuk Kroeun Vutha, secretary of state at Cambodia’s Environment Ministry, declined to comment because he had not seen the report, and Laotian officials were not available.

Land grabs have become a flashpoint for tension in all three Southeast Asian countries, where criticism of governments is rare and often stifled.

Global Witness said the clearance of land with little or no compensation had impoverished tens of thousands of people who had few avenues for recourse in countries dominated by single political parties and tycoons connected to the establishment.

“We’ve known for some time that corrupt politicians in Cambodia and Laos are orchestrating the land-grabbing crisis that is doing so much damage in the region,” Megan MacInnes, in charge of land issues for Global Witness, said in a statement.

“Often, the first time people learn of a plantation is when the company bulldozers arrive to clear their farms,” she said.

Vietnam, the third-largest rubber producer, is running out of land for expanding rubber plantations, pushing companies such as HAGL and VRG into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

HAGL confirmed in a statement that some of its subsidiaries grew rubber and sugar in Cambodia and Laos.

“We believe that we conform to the local laws strictly, including forest protection,” it said.

HAGL said it had built homes for the poor, schools and a hospital among other contributions to the community and that it had invited Global Witness to visit any of its projects.

Global Witness alleged that HAGL and VRG used shell companies and subsidiaries to acquire leases on huge plots of land, accumulating far more than allowed under the law in each country with the use of political connections.

People living in the areas in question told Global Witness that HAGL and VRG employed armed guards or used members of the security forces to protect their interests.

In some incidents, these forces shot into crowds of protesters, burnt down homes and beat up opponents of land grabs, they told Global Witness. (Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alan Raybould and Tom Hogue)