A Vietnamese conglomerate funded by investment banks with links to the private-sector arm of the World Bank has been accused by activists of bulldozing land in Cambodia that had been earmarked for return to indigenous communities. A part of the 742-hectare land in the northern province of Ratanakiri was reportedly cleared in March – as Cambodians were told to shelter in place amid the coronavirus pandemic – by Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which is owned by a wealthy businessman with interests in property, agriculture, energy and a Vietnamese football club. Vietnamese firms ‘carrying out land grabs in Cambodia and Laos’ “The company bulldozed two spirit mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas and burial grounds,” said human rights groups Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International (IDI) in a joint statement released on Monday. “[It] destroyed old-growth forest and caused irreparable harm to land of priceless spiritual value to the communities.” According to the two groups, the land had been given to HAGL under a concession by the Cambodian government – a claim that has been disputed by local authorities. In March last year, the governor of Ratanakiri asked Cambodia’s Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries Ministry to officially order HAGL to return the land to the province’s villages of Muoy, Inn, Mas and Kak in the province as it was “improperly included” in the company’s “agricultural land concessions ”. HAGL – whose headquarters are in Vietnam’s Pleiku city, about 160km from Ratanakiri – received loans from VP Bank and TP Bank, private Vietnamese financial institutions that the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation (IFC) has invested in. Coronavirus cuts a swathe through Asia’s garment industry In a statement supplied to This Week in Asia on Wednesday, the IFC said it had no direct financial exposure to HAGL. “IFC has invested in financial intermediaries – VP Bank and TP Bank – that either used to have or continue to have a commercial relationship with HAGL,” it said, adding that VP Bank did not make any new investments in HAGL since receiving IFC funding, while TP Bank’s exposure to HAGL is limited to financing its operations in Vietnam . In August 2016, IFC announced a quasi-equity investment in TP Bank of about US$18.35 million in dividend preference shares which would allow the organisation to become one of its shareholders with 4.9 per cent of the bank’s equity capital at the time. About two weeks later, IFC’s first loan of US$50 million to VP Bank was disclosed to the public – part of a maximum US$125 million financing package to help the bank “enhance its support for local enterprises and boost international trade opportunities”, according to a press release. While confirming that it was aware of the reported land clearances, IFC said in its statement on Wednesday that it was “in the process of verifying facts on the ground”. “If IFC confirms that a client has not complied with the environmental and social standards we require of our clients, we raise those issues and seek redress,” it said. Srey Vuthy, a spokesman for Cambodia’s agricultural ministry, told the Phnom Penh Post that there has been some disagreement over the size of the area to be returned to villagers. He said the ministry would send a team to inspect the area and suggested that all parties – the villagers, HAGL, provincial authorities and the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, an independent watchdog of the IFC – undertake a review of the situation together. HAGL was established 27 years ago and now has a market capitalisation of 9.2 trillion dong (US$395.6 million). It also owns the prominent Hoang Anh Gia Lai Football Club – Vietnam’s third-highest valued club according to Transfermarkt, a German soccer specialist website. HAGL’s head of corporate communications did not respond to two emails requesting comments, while attempts to reach the company through an email address provided on its website were unsuccessful. Since the early 2000s, large swathes of land, including protected forest areas occupied by local communities, have been allocated by the Cambodian government to domestic and foreign investors as concessions to develop industrial agriculture. In 2009, the Cambodian government gave about 19,000 hectares of land belonging to 12 separate communities to HAGL. As of March 6, six of its subsidiaries owned a total of 54,191 hectares of land in Ratanakiri province, according to land concession data set released by LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights organisation. A 2012 moratorium on the granting of new concessions and a promise to review old ones have both failed to resolve long-standing disputes between the companies and affected peoples linked to such concessions, land rights activists said. “Forced compensation has been used in most of the cases by companies and authorities. Protests are still happening from time to time by the affected people who didn’t accept the solution imposed by the companies and authorities,” said Thun Saray, president of Cambodian human rights organisation ADHOC. “On paper, there is recognition of indigenous communities’ collective ownership of land, but in practice, there’s not.” We will keep demanding until we get this place back Sev Seun, Kak villager Equitable Cambodia Executive Director Eang Vuthy said HAGL had twice pulled out of negotiations with villagers over the Ratanakiri lands and that two complaints had been filed with the IFC’s watchdog. David Pred, Executive Director of IDI, said advocates were wondering why the company had cleared the land “given that mediations to resolve this protracted conflict had just recommenced at HAGL’s request”. It is possible that it was an act of retaliation by the management of HAGL’s local subsidiaries against the indigenous communities, he said, though it remains unclear what part, if any, their parent company played. Eang said that while the company had offered villagers jobs such as clearing weeds and rubber tapping for a wage of US$5 a day, these would be performed on land that actually belonged to the community. Given that representatives of Muoy, Inn, Mas and Kak villages had approached the Cambodian government and sought reassurances that HAGL would not be able to take control of the land, Eang questioned why there had been no effort made to stop the clearances. IDI said it now appeared the land was being prepared for the planting of some kind of crops. Sev Seun of Kak village, who used to raise cattle and grow vegetables on the land, said he felt despondent but would press on to ensure villagers’ rights were protected. “We will keep demanding until we get this place back. If the company refuses to return [the land], we will continue to protest. If the company grows anything at this location, we will pull it out,” he said through an interpreter.