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Labourers harvest sugar cane at a plantation in an economic land concession in Kampong Speu’s Thpong district
Labourers harvest sugar cane at a plantation in an economic land concession in Kampong Speu’s Thpong district last week. Daniel Quinlan

Blood sugar: Made in Cambodia

Dear Lord Puttnam,

Cambodia is facing a human-rights crisis in the form of land grabbing and often-violent forced evictions by sugarcane plantations whose crops are destined for the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union.

As a consequence of the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade pact with Cambodia, sugar has become big business here over the past half-decade.

Last year, the EU imported 65,000 tons of sugar from concessions in Koh Kong, Kampong Speu and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

While I recognise, in theory, the benefits of the EBA scheme for least developed countries such as Cambodia, the cost of the rapid economic growth that necessarily follows must not be borne by the poor – for then, such an agreement loses all meaning and purpose.

According to rights group Licadho, “development of the Cambodian sugar industry has been accompanied by violent forced evictions; widespread seizures of farmland; destruction of property, crops, livestock, and community forests; and the use of violence and intimidation”.

A directive by Prime Minister Hun Sen suspending the granting of new economic land concessions (ELCs) has not been heeded, and a supposed review of existing ELCs, announced at the same time, has not taken place.

Incomplete land registration has compounded the problem, because many farmers do not possess documents to confirm ownership of their land, despite having cultivated it well beyond the legal periods necessary for entitlement.

The government, as well as concession holders, routinely use this situation to their advantage, and in contests between farmers and private companies, the farmers almost always lose.

I am writing to request that you, in your capacity as UK trade envoy to Cambodia, do everything in your power to push the Cambodian government to deliver on its so-far-unfulfilled promises to protect the rights and livelihoods of its citizens as our economy advances.

Subsistence farmers forced off their land to make space for sugarcane plantations must be fairly compensated. They must be allowed to live free from hunger and fear. And their children must be guaranteed the same.

While the EU’s trade commissioner, Karel de Gucht, this week said that he had no intention of investigating Cambodian sugarcane plantations, nor suspending duty-free sugar exports from Cambodia to the European Union, it is not too late for the many parties directly or indirectly responsible for human-rights abuses stemming from Cambodia’s burgeoning sugar industry to take a stand. The United Kingdom is indisputably one such party.

Almost exactly one year ago – on March 28, 2013 – 200 farmers from Koh Kong province filed a lawsuit against four companies that have benefited from sugarcane plantations responsible for land grabbing, among them the UK’s Tate & Lyle and L & L Sugars Ltd. The case is proceeding successfully in the UK courts, and may provide some relief for the farmers. However, the case is expensive and not easily replicable in land grabbing cases that do not involve crops.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo this year both pledged “zero tolerance” for land grabbing in their supply chains, and are conducting audits of their supply chains. If these two financially interested beverage giants can take steps to wash their hand of “blood sugar”, so too can the UK government and British-owned firms.

As producer of the acclaimed film The Killing Fields, you are intimately familiar with Cambodia’s history of violence. And as UK trade envoy, you are equally familiar with its contemporary injustices. You are in a unique position to promote socially responsible trade with, and investment in, Cambodia – and even become a champion for such a cause.

We need to put an end to the trade of sugar tainted with our farmers’ blood.

Respectfully yours,
Mu Sochua
Member-elect of Parliament
Cambodia National Rescue Party

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