19 Dec 2023
Survey, Mapping & Spatial Planning
Governance, Policy & Institutional Strengthening
Posted19 Dec 2023
The purpose of the 2018 ASEAN Guidelines for Responsible Investment in Food, Agriculture and Forestry is “to promote investment in food, agriculture and forestry in the ASEAN region that contributes to regional economic development, food and nutrition security, food safety and equitable benefits, as well as the sustainable use of natural resources”. Guideline 3 states that ASEAN RAI Guidelines want to “contribute to equality, engagement and empowerment for women, young people, indigenous peoples and marginalized groups by…Supporting equitable access to opportunities and protecting human rights.”
With almost five years since the adoption of the ASEAN Guidelines, Renée Chartres recently travelled to Cambodia to examine their impact on the rubber sector.. She travelled with Asisah Man from Oxfam Cambodia to support Oxfam’s work under the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) regional Responsible Agriculture Investment (RAI) activities focused on gender equality and RAI.. Below are her reflections on this experience.
Figure 1: At the Vietnamese Rubber Group (VRG) subsidiary company rubber plantation, C.R.C.K.2
In December 2023 I had the pleasure of travelling with Oxfam Cambodia to interview four women farmers and workers involved in rubber production. This engagement with Oxfam Cambodia came against the backdrop of an exploding rubber industry across Cambodia. In the latest figures available from the General Department of Rubber and Plantation at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (covering January to April 2023), Cambodia produced 81,909 tons of rubber, which represented an increase of 29 tons compared to the same period in 2022, and 1,922 cubic meters of rubberwood, with the industry bringing in more than $US610 million from the rubber production and $1.5 million from the export of rubber wood. Of course, this growth in large-scale monoculture rubber plantations over the last two decades has not been without significant criticism – with critics highlighting that the growth of rubber has led to mass deforestation, a loss of biodiversity and forest cover, and compromised the livelihoods and homes of forest dependent communities. Global Forest Watch estimates that nearly five percent of the land area in Cambodia is now reserved for rubber plantations. Land for rubber is provided to investors via economic land concessions (ECLs). Widespread concerns that ECLs had gotten out of hand were heard by the government, with the result that in 2012 the government had suspended the granting of new ECLs, a situation that continues to this day.
Figure 2: Rubber tree with latex at the CRCK 2 plantation
These issues and more were at the forefront of my mind as we travelled nearly 500kms across rural Cambodia from Phnom Penh to Tboung Khmum Province, and later to Kampong Thom Province. Having just two days before participated in two MRLG Phase III inception workshops in Bangkok on customary tenure recognition and RAI implementation with MRLG’s partner organizations, I was also ruminating on the translation of RAI on the ground in specific supply chains.
Figure 3: Interview with rubber plantation couple [names omitted for anonymity purposes]
At the same time, I was there with a very specific mission – to understand the on-the-ground, gender-specific opportunities that the growth of the rubber industry could provide, and the value add of support from organizations like Oxfam in working with producers and corporate rubber plantation management on gender equality.
I am quite familiar with the negative impacts of land-based investment for gender equality – various researchers note that the loss of access to farmland can be devastating for women and their families, can worsen women’s perception of tenure insecurity, disrupt livelihoods dependent on utilizing common resources or own plots, and can reduce household food output. In this trip I was keen to see what can be done to improve outcomes in an environment where the prevalence of monocrops seemed to be firmly implanted (excuse the pun).
Our four interviews were instructive in many ways and show the deep-seated challenges in supporting women farmers and workers in contexts where actual power, in terms of access to finance, inputs and influence at the local level tends to be held by men. With space limitations, here I will just focus on three key takeaways, noting that these ultimately will develop into deeper journeys of change or case studies by Oxfam.
First, RAI ‘successes’ in terms of improved livelihoods and gender equality, do not depend solely on women’s experience and opportunities within the rubber supply chain. To a large extent, in a society where much power is held by men and there are limited justice avenues, success in terms of economic empowerment will be moderated by virtue of marital status, quality of marriage and prevalent social norms. In this regard, the experiences of our two independent rubber farmers in Ponhea Kraeck District, could not be more different. While both had recently switched to planting rubber and both had begun to work through agricultural cooperatives (with support from Oxfam / FNN) to increase collective bargaining power to negotiate with middlemen and who had both received training on making their rubber fields more productive, the actual tangible impact these positive new arrangements differed. For the first woman, who was in a loving relationship with her husband and with whom all land-based decisions were agreed equally and with both spouses’ names registered on the land documentation, the overall experience working in rubber had led to significant new family income, and a decrease in debts.
For the second woman, a divorcee who had been left by her husband, the situation was more complicated. Whilst the heightened income from rubber was good, as well as the productivity training provided through the cooperative, she was dealing with serious complications due to an unwritten arrangement whereby she paid for her (ex) husband’s microfinance debt, in return for him giving her the land. Despite independently planting the seeds, he constantly visits and makes claims to the land, having seen how profitable rubber production has been. As the female household head supporting her sick mother and two daughters, in a country with limited healthcare, her savings remained precarious, and her tenure security limited, with the land certificate still in both husband and wife’s names. Her husband refuses to sign the divorce paperwork – agreeing only to do so upon the receipt of $US10, 000. Neighbors also blame her for the divorce and tell her it is her fault that he left her as she wasn’t ‘a good wife’ (despite the husband initiating an extramarital relationship and accumulating gambling debts during their marriage). This shows the unsurprisingly pervasive influence of discriminatory social norms that divorced women farmers face in rural areas.
Second, rubber plantations, for the women interviewed, offered a security and consistency of income which was highly valued that was apparently unavailable elsewhere. The interviews with the two couple employees on the Vietnamese rubber plantation illustrates the limited choices available to rural families in Cambodia’s transforming rural land market. Both rubber plantation interviewees noted that the best things about working on the plantation was the access to a regular income (paid on the 11th of each month “without fail”), access to schooling on the site, accommodation, regular electricity and access to health insurance – all of which was unavailable when they were smallholder farmers or construction workers in Thailand (as was the case for the final couple interviewed). This contrasted to the situation of the independent farmers discussed above who had to pay each time for medicines for family members, and hospital visits – and in one case had a significant ongoing debt to the hospital. For the plantation workers, the regular income combined with the social security offered to families by the company (compulsory under Cambodian law) was cited as a key reason for their capacity to save and to even be able to purchase additional plots of land. Both women interviewees were quick to also state that they hoped their children would be able to finish their schooling because of the secure incomes and savings they had generated by working on the plantation.
In the many valid criticisms about the industrialization and commercialization of rural landscape as a result of the rise cash crops and the exclusion of women farmers from these new markets, these women provided a surprisingly positive testimony of their experience, despite experiencing grueling working conditions, including shifts beginning at 11pm. This is not to state that all is positive – it is simply to acknowledge that for some women, life on plantation provides significant benefits and the comfort to “make plans for the future”, especially in a context of limited options.
Figure 4: Corporate management in discussion with Oxfam on gender equality opportunities
Third, a corporate commitment to gender equality and addressing women’s specific needs, supported by technical assistance from external organizations like Oxfam, may lead to tangible economic opportunities for women within the company. Our interview with the two Director Generals of the two subsidiary companies of the Vietnamese Rubber Group (VRG) – far left and left of Figure 4 – indicated a high-level commitment and appreciation of Oxfam’s inputs and advice around gender mainstreaming – albeit with significant improvements to be made at the corporate level in terms of women’s voice and engagement with management. Interestingly, this did appear to translate into leadership roles for some women on the plantation. The first woman interviewed was a ‘group leader’ (managing a team of 40 workers) and she had aims to become a farm chief (i.e. managing 200 or so workers, across five farms within the plantation). The corporate leadership stated in our meeting that it was their objective to “Cambodianize” the leadership of the plantation and to aim for a gender balance. Other strategies included making sure women worked on sites close to the accommodation to have more time with their children, and to allow extended family on to the site to look after children while their parents worked (and when not in school or at the pagoda). Under MRLG III, Oxfam will continue to engage with the VRG corporate leadership on their gender equality strategy and platforms for engagement with women workers, potentially expanding the work to the VRG corporate level, but also to the VRG plantations in Laos.
Stay tuned for the publication of the stories of change next year – as we revisit these families and women for updates at different periods across the two year final phase of the MRLG programme.
Figure 5: Rubber as collected and liquified on the plantation
 A summary of this research is provided in SDC “Land based investment: Gender Inequalities, Obstacles and Opportunities” produced as part of the Transformative Land Investment project of which LEI is a key partner (March 2023, unpublished).
Renée Chartres, Senior Land and Law Specialist / Gender Advisor, MRLG Programme
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