Vietnamese coffee growers protest loss of land rights in Central Highlands

About 100 coffee growers in Vietnam’s Central Highlands staged a protest to regain land rights they lost after they stopped sending some of their crops to a forestry company that had allotted the parcels to them but did not invest in production, farmers involved in the demonstration said Thursday.

The Southeast Asian country is one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, with the Vietnam General Statistics Office predicting exports worth U.S. $3 billion for 2021, up more than 9.4% over the previous year. The Central Highlands are Vietnam’s largest coffee-growing area,

The protest followed a court ruling against farmers who refused to provide Buon Ja Wam Forestry Company Ltd. with a portion of their annual output as rent payment.

The group of farmers from the country’s majority Kinh ethnic group and ethnic minority people who live in Ea Kiet village of Cu M’Gar district have gathered for four days to object to the revocation of land-use rights, they said.

The farmers say they cleared the land themselves, but then had to turn over what they produced to the company, which collected their crops without providing fertilizer, water or technical assistance.

The Cu M’Gar District People’s Court issued the ruling in a lawsuit initiated by Buon Ja Wam against the farmers.

In 2018, the company took legal action against 13 households that had failed to fulfill their responsibilities in accordance with leasing contracts they signed with the company.

In 1993, local authorities allocated 6,940 hectares (17,149 acres) of forest land in the Eo Kiet and Ea Kueh commnunes to Buon Ja Wam. Three years later, the company signed contracts with local residents stating that it would lease them 400 hectares (988) of land and receive part of their crops as rent payment each year.

But since 2016, many farmers have refused to deliver their crops to the company, which then sued them for nonpayment of debt and demanded they return the land.

A resident of one hamlet in the area, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said the farmers decided to fight for their rights in response to the company’s dishonesty.

“As we all know, when doing business together, the company should have had some investments to enable farmers to do their farming work so that they could pay taxes and products to the company,” he said.

“Although the company did not give farmers a single grain of fertilizer or a drop of water or any technical assistance, it still collected the farmers’ crops,” he said.

The villager also said that Buon Ja Wam used to send staff to intimidate and threaten farmers who failed to make their in-kind payments on time, beating some to the point where they sustained serious injuries.

Local authorities told the villagers that they could not do anything to help them.

“We think there must be an interest group backing this company,” the resident said. “Their wrongdoings have been obvious, but as rank-and-file farmers, we had no choice but to work as slaves.”

RFA was unable to reach Buon Ja Wam for comment.

Dialogue unlikely

In an article published by Vietnam’s Business and Integration online newspaper in 2018, Phan Quoc Tan, Buon Ja Wam’s deputy director general, said the reason why farmers had stopped making in-kind payments was that “bad guys had encouraged and incited them to do so.”

Local farmers wanted to meet with company officials to discuss the situation, but the company refused the request, said another farmer who also requested anonymity for the same reason.

“Although local residents requested in earnest that Buon Ja Wam Company, local authorities at all levels, and coffee growers sit down together, they [the company] refused to do so,” he said.

“We want the local authorities to mediate the dialogue so that we can find a solution that is mutually beneficial and minimizes losses for both sides,” he said. “We have requested such a dialogue many times, but the authorities still have failed to make it happen.”

Residents say that they cleared the land in the 1980s when the government called for the development of new economic zones in the Central Highlands, and that officials did not allocate the land to Buon Ja Wam to grow coffee until 1996.

Because of this, local residents argued that the government should have granted land-use rights to them instead of to the company.

A farmer who lives in another hamlet in Eo Kiet said his family never received a land-use certificate for a parcel of land they bought from a family who had cleared it in the 1980s.

Although his family has been living on the land for years, they fear they will lose it due to their lack of the certificate.

“What we want is for the authorities, especially the Dak Lak People’s Committee, to revoke the land from the company and return it to the local government,” he told RFA. “Then the local government could allocate the land to local residents so that we can grow crops on our own land in order to pay taxes to the state and secure our livelihoods.”

RFA could not reach Cu M’Ga district officials for comment.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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