CSR and conflicts over land in Asia

CSR Asia published a new report on Conflicts Over Land: A Role of Responsible and Inclusive Business. The report examines the rise of “land grabs” in Asia and how this impacts on poor and vulnerable people in the region. http://csr-asia.com/csr-asia-weekly-news-detail.php?id=12395

Report: http://www.csr-asia.com/report/RIB_Asia_Land_report.pdf

A human rights group in Cambodia recently reported more than half a million Cambodians have been affected by land conflicts involving the government since 2000, with more than 2,000 families across the country subjected to largely violent land grabs during the first few months of this year. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/land-04012014170055.html

Community land rights need to be in the post-2015 agenda!

From http://www.communitylandrights.org/policy-brief-community-land-rights-in-the-zero-draft-of-the-post-2015-agenda/:

The United Nation’s  post-2015 development agenda’s transformative potential depends on the extent to which it can address the structural factors that entrench global inequalities ranging from poverty to food insecurity. Many organizations consider secure and equitable rights to land and natural resources to be fundamental to achieving the agenda’s goals.

However, the zero draft fails to recognize that land tenure governance is often community-based, and is organized according to local, customary laws. It is imperative that these tenure systems are strengthened rather than fragmented, and that collective rights are recognized alongside purely individual ones.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), Oxfam, and the Secretariat of the International Land Coalition (ILC) have proposed a revision of six of the agenda’s goals to better ensure that positive change reaches those most reliant on land-based resources, particularly women and Indigenous Peoples.

The full policy brief can be accessed here.

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Cambodia and the 2013 Corruption Perception Index


Cambodia is now perceived by investors as Southeast Asia’s most corrupt country, behind Myanmar, the DRC, and Zimbabwe on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index. This, to me, is just crazy, especially when considering how much aid money goes to the Cambodian government each year to promote “good governance,” “democracy,” and provide programming for “technical assistance” to “build capacity” of government officials and agencies.

I collected data from the last several years to see how Cambodia’s rankings have changed in the areas of corruption, human development, and peace, as well as how much U.S. aid money they have received each year. The numbers show something really interesting: the amount of U.S. aid money to Cambodia increases nearly every year. The Human Development Index (HDI) and Global Peace Index (GPI) scores also slightly improve each year. The positive relationship is statistically significant, perhaps showing that U.S. aid is helping Cambodia in these two areas.

The Corruption Perception Index score and rank, however, has an insignificant, nearly negative relationship with aid (i.e., aid goes up, CPI score and rank stay the same or go down). Is this coincidence, or is it more proof for aid dependency theory? What do you think?

Corruption Perception Index (Transparency International)
2005  130  23
2006  151  21
2007  162  20
2008  166  18
2009  158  20
2010  154  21
2011  164  21
2012  157  22
2013  160  20

Global Peace Index (Institute for Economics and Peace)
2007  85  2.2
2008  91  2.18
2009  105  2.18
2010  111  2.25
2011  115  2.3
2012  108  2.21
2013  115  2.26

Human Development Index
2005   0.501
2006   0.511
2007   0.520
2008   0.520
2009   0.526
2010   0.528
2011   0.532
2012   0.538
2013   0.543

USAID money to Cambodia (approximate, data collected from foreignassistance.gov)
2006  54.9 million
2007  57.3 million
2008  58.2 million
2009  65.2 million
2010  72.6 million
2011  75.4 million
2012  76.1 million
2013  73.5 million
2014  73.4 million

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Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the new blood sugar


About a year ago we were reminded in a blog by David Pred of IDI, “Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood.” Now, you can officially say the same about Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The blood sugar campaign continued after hundreds of farmers in Cambodia were forcibly evicted to make way for agro-industrial sugar cane plantations, run by key Pepsi and Coke suppliers. Thanks to the ongoing activism of these farmers, supported by Oxfam and other civil society organizations, these corporations were finally called out for the atrocities occurring within their supply chain.

In Cambodia, sugar provides a major industry with exports at around $13 million last year. The product has the potential to bring local people out of poverty, but the opposite has proven true in practice. This is especially true in Cambodia where investments are carried out in a top-down, non-transparent, and even violent manner.

The companies must begin to follow their obligations under international law: exercise due diligence, obtain free, prior, and informed consent, and conduct social, human rights, environmental, and health impact assessments before carrying out investments, so that local people and not just industry can benefit. It’s not a lot to ask when considering the profit companies are making from these land grabs.

Coca-Cola recently pledged a zero-tolerance policy of land-grabbing by suppliers and bottlers. Pepsi should use this opportunity to foster corporate competition of a different kind and take an even bigger step in the direction of corporate social responsibility: for communities that agree to sugar plantations, what if the company directly engaged with community members from the beginning, ensured communities had their own independent attorney during the investment process, and left them plenty of land to farm as well as farming technology and training programmes? If small-holding farmers agree to let investors use their land–which is the basis of their whole livelihood–again, this is not much to ask of a huge corporation.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola need to act now, accept responsibility for their suppliers’ unacceptable conduct toward our world’s smallholding farmers, and come up with new, innovative policies that will benefit all involved parties in the future.


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Ordaining Trees in Koh Kong

One of my favorite environmental protection strategies: ordaining, or blessing, trees.

Forty monks traveled nine hours by bus from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong Province to walk 30 kilometers through the forest and spread out 80 meters of orange cloth through the forest. The goal is to stop a Chinese company from building an exploitative hydropower dam. The monks were followed by armed police as they walked through the forest.

See the article from the Phnom Penh Post here.


New UNHCHR Report on Businesses and Indigenous Peoples

New UNHCHR Report on Businesses and Indigenous Peoples

This week, the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises presented its first thematic report to the UN General Assembly. The report explores the challenges in addressing the adverse effects of business activities on indigenous peoples’ rights. The Working Group’s report highlights how the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can clarify the roles and responsibilities of States, business enterprises, and indigenous peoples in addressing problems involving land use and ownership, and displacement through forced or economic resettlement.

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Oxfam has it wrong about communal land titling in Cambodia.

Oxfam recently stated that communal titling efforts are necessary to protect the natural resources of indigenous communities in Cambodia according to the Phnom Penh Post (see below). This is an assumption that donors have already been operating on for more than a decade, and it hasn’t worked.

Despite the fact that more than ten NGOs have been working with indigenous communities since as early as 1998, only five communal titles have been granted to indigenous communities since the Land Law passed in 2001. Forty-nine villages have completed the communal titling process and are waiting on the last step. The national government has demonstrated it does not intend to provide communal titles to indigenous villages.

Communal titling processes have not enabled people to protect their land against outsiders. A large number of these communities, even the ones who have finished the process set out under the law, have lost their land to investors. Just going through the process of trying to obtain a communal land title takes years.  And the process is not necessarily helpful: some communities who complete all legalities may still not even have a map to show which land is theirs. When an investor comes into their community with a document authorized by the national government, the investor’s official documents will trump their traditional ownership in front of any government or dispute resolution body.

Most recently, communal titling efforts thus far also demonstrably did not protect communities against privatization efforts meant to incorporate them into investments. Hundreds of indigenous families’ private plots of land within Economic Land Concessions were privatized under the government’s Directive 01BB: Measures Reinforcing and Increasing the Efficiency of the Management of Economic Land Concessions*. Companies easily cleared the communal land around those private plots of land, and the indigenous families now live on small plots encompassed by agro-industrial plantations. Now the government has additional justifications for rejecting communities’ communal land title applications. First, most of the communities’ lands are privatized, making their communal title applications invalid since demonstrated communal land use is a prerequisite. Second, because most of the communities’ communal land has been cleared by companies,  obtaining the communal titles to protect their communal land becomes irrelevant.

In focusing on the end results of communal titles, donors have missed a huge opportunity to actually empower people to protect their land. In a country like Cambodia where the national law is rarely enforced at the local level, going through nationally set-up legal processes will not help communities. Donors need to focus on what is actually useful.

One NGO in Ratanakiri Province has taken this approach since 1998. They have conducted the national legal process backwards: one of the first steps is to delineate communities’ borders and mark them. Since the NGO began its efforts, not one of these communities has had issues with investors. When the privatization project Directive 01BB passed through Ratanakiri Province, each of these communities refused to participate out of a desire to protect their communal land. Practical empowering tools, not national bureaucratic steps, helps communities protect their communal land. Provide people with practical tools that enable their communities to interface with powerful national or international actors, and ultimately protect their land and natural resources.

*Btw, why hasn’t anyone recognized how ironic the title of this policy is, considering the fact that the government claimed the policy was meant to formalize peoples’ existing land rights with titles?

oxfam land titling


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Send them to the field!…again

Thank you all for the wonderful discussion and responses on my latest post. I love talking about things like this – this is how we make aid better!  I apologize for the late response…After a year of working in “the field” in Cambodia, I’m now working in an urban center in Sierra Leone. Ironically I just returned from a three-day field visit, where I had to figure out a village’s complex land issues…in three days. I am my own worst enemy! Joking. Anyway…

I hope I can respond to most of your comments. To clarify definitions for the sake of this discussion, I tried to use the term “the field” in the context of my post to define places that are geographically close to the beneficiary – who are usually in rural areas. I should have more clearly defined the urban/rural distinction, but I made an assumption that we would all agree that right now, most development programs are focused on issues in rural areas. Other increasingly popular programs also place a value on rural areas at their foundations – those that focus on “good governance” and “democracy-building” based on a principle of “de-centralization.” Yet, as I argued, most of the international workers that help with these programs are based in the city.

Of course, I would not purport that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. And sure, urbanization is increasing, but I would argue the majority of development will and should stay in rural areas for quite some time. De-agrianization is not even close to becoming absolute and most people, I would argue, will continue to rely on the land for subsistence and small-scale commercial agriculture in the countryside.

Anyway, this is all outside of the scope of the meat of the debate here – no one is trying to argue that people working on urban issues should live in the countryside. As for those of you who would argue that people working on projects affecting rural people should work in the cities, here are some of my clarifications.

I do not try to make the absolutist argument that “field experience” inevitably creates competence, or that lack of it indicates incompetence. I do believe that field experience (using my above definition of “the field”) increases the chances of competence – both on the job and afterward. Life in rural areas in developing countries is challenging, requiring self-development. It’s often lonely, requiring introspection. There are language and cultural barriers, requiring a constant realization of country context. Project activities and impacts are in-your-face on a day-to-day basis, requiring constant project re-evaluation. It requires one to ask the questions, “Why am I here?” “What are we doing?” or even, “Who am I?”…opposed to the questions that I often found myself asking when I worked in the city: “Who are the people in these pictures?” “Where can I find this information or data?” “What are the impacts of our project?” And then the existential crisis: “Why am I sitting at this desk all day living the exact same life I could be living at home, but with slower internet?”

I’m being a bit facetious. Sure, maybe the work from city to field isn’t all that different, but the lifestyle necessitates a different approach and perspective to the work. Relevant information is more accessible. It’s easier to conduct activities or make changes that actually affect beneficiaries because they’re right there. And perhaps most importantly, the lifestyle necessitates both professional and personal growth.

We can still do capacity-building and report-writing and all of the things we internationals are meant to be doing in the field. In fact, capacity building in particular is even more needed in rural areas, especially in local government offices. De-centralization, anyone?

Certainly both rural and urban local aid workers are essential to the operation of an organization. Relocating international workers will not replace local workers – it will simply put the two side-by-side instead of having them (sometimes) communicate electronically. And sure, I would never undercut the work of local development workers and their cultural understandings, but we should not depend on them entirely. There is undeniably a class divide between local aid workers and beneficiaries, and this is exacerbated in urban areas. I saw this a lot in Cambodia, for example, where ethnic Khmer people in the city, from the city, were working on rural development of indigenous peoples – as opposed to indigenous peoples I worked with in the rural areas trying to create indigenous networks in their home communities.

I should explain my personal background, where a lot of my beliefs come from. My first development job was working in rural Cambodia as a volunteer for an organization. The field staff spoke such little English that I found my efforts there quite useless. I spent most of the time communicating with international staff via my computer. But I used my location to do something else too: I stuck my nose in a book and learned Khmer. After three months, I was able to do my job. One year later, I returned to that same rural area to work with indigenous people on land rights issues, and I feel as though my work during that year was incredibly effective because of (1) my location and (2) my language abilities. I gained a better understanding on culture and localities from each daily conversation. People – including the beneficiaries – were incredibly open and responsive, and often told me they respected and trusted me more because I lived there and had invested in them and their country. I was able to spot a huge gap between what our local staff were doing in the project and what the project did for the beneficiaries, and re-wrote the project. I had one-on-one meetings with local government officials who became invested in our project and engaged with each other, local organizations, and communities.

I’m not saying these things can’t happen on a short-term field visit, translated or no, but aren’t the chances of success higher? And aren’t the field workers coming out with more knowledge, character, and experiences than they would have from sitting in a clichéd air-conditioned office all day?

Even beyond the amazing things we can do while we’re in the field, it is also what that experience enables us to do later. “Where” I did my work led me to a different “how” I think about my work. (Again, I don’t think field experience automatically does this for everyone, but it did it for me.) I’m now working in Freetown, Sierra Leone on rural land issues. Even by working in the city in a different country, my field experience in Cambodia has given me a fresh outlook on my city to field work. I have noticed that I now approach work and the ex-pat lifestyle with a much more respectful and curious localized focus: learning the Krio language, learning about history and culture, making local friends, cooking local food, etc… and most importantly, I recognize that I cannot know or understand everything about this place, even by doing these things. I cannot place the country, project, or beneficiaries in a text box in Microsoft Word. Locals are complex human beings too, not just pictures on a page, with their own culture, language, and dreams. I know the beneficiary and the real issue is always much more complicated than I think it is.

I do make about one field visit per week, and I recognize maybe it is not enough. I might be more effective if I lived right where the problems were, and maybe someday I will again, but for now, my experience in the field has given me all the perspective I need.

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