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A labourer inspects sugarcane in Kandal province’s Saang district in 2011
A labourer inspects sugarcane in Kandal province’s Saang district in 2011. Heng Chivoan

A bittersweet success

As Cambodian government officials and top European Union diplomats kick off four days of high-level meetings in Brussels today, new EU trade statistics show that imports of Cambodian sugar – a crop linked to extensive alleged land grabbing – quadrupled between 2012 and 2013.

Cambodian exports enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to EU markets under the bloc’s Everything But Arms trade scheme for least-developed countries, but sugar suppliers seeking to cash in on the scheme have been accused of dispossessing and forcibly evicting thousands of villagers in three provinces after being awarded economic land concessions by the government.

The EU and Cambodia today begin the eighth meeting of the Cambodia-EU Joint Committee, the highest-level policy dialogue between the two partners, and rights groups are pushing for the EU to take a stronger stance on human rights abuses in Cambodia and consider suspending EBA privileges for sugar.

In January, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to act urgently after a human-rights impact assessment found the EBA carried “risks of devastating human rights impacts”.

Since then, a government working group that includes the EU ambassador and sugar companies has been formed, tasked with finding “concrete solutions” to outstanding disputes.

The committee has admitted that there are discrepancies in the numbers of affected families identified by different stakeholders and has said a third party might be engaged to review compensation procedures.

The new data, obtained by Inclusive Development International (IDI), show that sugar imports from Cambodia surged from 15,501 tons (worth almost $14 million) in 2012 to 64,917 tons (worth $53 million) in 2013.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, total exports to the EU hit $2.5 billion last year, up 33 per cent. In 2010, Cambodia exported 10,000 tons of sugar to the EU; its first shipment of sugar in nearly four decades, after British sugar giant Tate & Lyle agreed to buy all sugar from plantations in Koh Kong province jointly owned by Thai group KSL and Taiwan’s Ve Wong Corporation.

More than 450 families were forcibly evicted from their land in 2006 to make way for those plantations, according to the rights group Community Legal Education Center.

While Tate & Lyle Sugars – bought by American Sugar Refining in 2010 – purchased another 22,500 tons of sugar in 2011 and 15,500 in 2012, virtually all sugar imported to the EU in those years, UK firms did not purchase any Cambodian sugar in 2013, the new data show.

In March last year, 200 Koh Kong villagers filed a lawsuit in the UK against Tate & Lyle claiming compensation for sugar profits made off land that they claim is still legally in their possession.

A diverse group of other EU member states has stepped in, however, with Bulgaria and Romania buying more than 50,000 tons between them last year. Greece, Spain and Italy also imported significant amounts.

“European citizens should be demanding answers from their government and from the European Commission about why there has been an exponential increase in imports of Cambodian ‘blood sugar’ to their countries and no solutions for the victims,” David Pred, managing director at IDI, said yesterday.

“Displaced families are literally struggling to survive, while sugar barons are laughing all the way to the bank. It is time for the EU to put an end to this gross injustice and revoke EBA preferences from Cambodian sugar until the affected communities have received full restitution.”

Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ugo Astuto, director of South and Southeast Asia at the European External Action Service, will co-chair this week’s meetings, which are to “discuss a wide range of issues of bilateral cooperation”, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

The last committee meetings, in 2012, discussed the impact on human rights impacts from economic land concessions and “reviewed Cambodia’s uptake of the [EBA]” as part of the talks, a joint statement said at the time.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and local rights groups Adhoc and Licadho have called for “urgent EU action” on the deteriorating overall rights situation in the Kingdom ahead of the meeting, offering recommendations in a number of key areas.

“We urge the EU to engage in a facts-based dialogue with the Cambodian government… If the EU fails to recognise the human rights crisis, it will lose yet another few years, and it is the Cambodian people who will ultimately pay the price,” Nicolas Agostini, FIDH’s delegate to the UN, said in an email.

“We urge the EU to send a clear signal that it is now ready to use its leverage to address human rights violations and abuses. The Cambodian government may claim it does not work under pressure, but it cannot afford substantive aid cuts or stigmatization at the international level.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said that Cambodia wished to work with the EU to improve human rights, pointing to the recently formed government committee on sugar disputes as an example of effective cooperation.

“I think revoking any commitments doesn’t do anything. Cooperating as partners is a better way to problem solve. We cooperate together to solve issues.… We have to find a good comprehensive solution, and we thank the EU for [joining us].”

He added that calls for the EU to use its sizable aid as leverage on the government was not constructive.

“No one is the master, we are partners … [with] a different culture and a different mindset. [But] it doesn’t mean that the government is not doing anything to improve that. We [work] daily to tackle the issues.”

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