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New twist in Cambodian sugar firm saga

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Sugar cane is bundled after being harvested last year. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Taiwanese food supplier Ve Wong, one of two sugar company owners locked in a long-running battle with villagers in Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel district, has made an eyebrow-raising offer – to give the disputed land back.

The company’s offer, posted to the non-profit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s website, comes with one major caveat: proof that the disputed hectares – part of a large economic land concession area granted to the firm in 2006 – were acquired illegally.

“If there is any evidence proving [VE Wong subsidiaries] illegally acquired the land from residents, the companies are willing to return [the land] and compensate all relocation costs of all affected families,” the statement reads.

However, supporters of the villagers in their more than six-year battle with the sugar conglomerate were not convinced.

“Unfortunately, we have heard similar promises from KSL Group before, to no effect,” retorted the Clean Sugar Campaign Tuesday on the “Boycott Blood Sugar” website.

Rights groups involved in the struggle are quick to point out that the disputed economic land concessions violate the 10,000 hectare limit on such deals under the 2001 land law.

The adjacent concessions granted to Koh Kong Plantation Co and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co total 9,400 and 9,700 hectares respectively, are for the same operation, they argue, and thus are effectively one ELC.

Based on official documents publicly released on the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries website, both companies occupy the same office space and were approved on the same day for the two concessions owned in a joint venture by KSL and Ve Wong.

Eang Vuthy of land rights group Equitable Cambodia said that a tangible solution would involve the companies negotiating with villagers.

“People have documents that prove ownership, but they have not even had a hearing yet,” Vuthy said.

The Post reported earlier this month that ruling-party Senator Ly Yong Phat had sold his 20 per cent share of the venture, although villagers still believe his influence is paramount.

“If Ly Yong Phat releases a statement to return the land, we will believe it,” Phal Vannak, a representative of affected families in Kampong Speu province, said.

Ve Wong did not respond to requests for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Will at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Sen David

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