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Evictees watch a community building burn next to a sugar plantation
Evictees watch a community building burn next to a sugar plantation in Oddar Meanchey after authorities set it ablaze during a 2009 eviction. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Sugar company pulls out

Asia's largest sugar producer, Thailand’s Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation, has withdrawn from its three plantations in Oddar Meanchey province following years of criticism over alleged illegalities and human rights abuses at the concessions, a development watchdog has said.

The three Mitr Phol concessions in Oddar Meanchey’s Samroang and Chongkal districts, totalling nearly 20,000 hectares, were visited by representatives of the Coca-Cola Company last year as part of its supply-chain audit after it committed to a “zero tolerance” approach to land grabbing in 2013.

Mitr Phol, one of three major suppliers to Coca-Cola, owns stakes in three sugar firms in Cambodia: Angkor Sugar, Tonle Sugar Cane, and Cane and Sugar Valley.

“Mitr Phol has decided to withdraw from the concessions,” Eang Vuthy, executive director of local NGO Equitable Cambodia, said yesterday. “We have informed the government land committee. The EU and government are conducting a joint audit of the concessions, so we are advocating that they expedite the case.”

“The legal land owners were evicted and they should be compensated and their land returned,” he added.

When the Mitr Phol subsidiaries were awarded the concessions in 2008 they pledged to invest millions of dollars to develop the sites and said the projects would create nealry 5,000 jobs for local people.

But what the villagers got instead were years of forced evictions and land loss; loss of habitat and access to water; an overall deterioration of income; increased migration to Thailand; and the destruction of areas of archaeological significance, according to a report released today by Action Aid and Oxfam.

The concessionaires, granted the land in breach of Cambodian laws and international obligations, have illegally confiscated thousands of hectares of land from villagers, but only cleared 3,190 hectares and planted sugar on only 219 hectares, the report says.

“The sugar processing plant also was never built,” the report says, adding that “the concessionaires signed a logging contract with an unknown company to harvest timber and [for the setup] of a timber processing plant in Angkor Sugar concession land”.

“The company had been logging the trees, processing it in the timber processing plant in Bak Nuem Village located within the Angkor Sugar concession land and converting it to sleepers for train tracks and exporting it to Thailand.”

Other alleged impacts of granting the concessions have included arson, the looting of crops, beatings and threats, and the intimidation and arrests of villagers.

Hoy Mai, a lawyer for some 200 families affected by the Angkor Sugar plantation, who was jailed for protesting the community’s forced eviction in 2009 while several months' pregnant, said Mitr Phol had pulled out of the three concessions last month.

“The company just pulled out last month, but the land is not being given to the victims. The victims said that the land is probably being given to the army,” she added.

In 2008 and 2009, more than 250 families were forcibly evicted from their homes in Bos village and left landless and homeless, their houses burned and bulldozed. None have yet received compensation, Mai said.

Equitable Cambodia and rights group Licadho have also claimed that labour rights violations, including child labour, took place on the ELCs. Villagers’ complaints prompted the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand to launch an investigation in 2010.

Mitr Phol representatives could not be reached yesterday, but its website suggests it dedicates considerable resources towards social responsibility.

Thun Sarath, spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, and Eang Sophalleth, a secretary of state at the ministry, could not be reached for comment.

The affected villagers this week called for an immediate formal cancellation of the three concessions, a comprehensive assessment of lost income and a remediation plan, and the rehabilitation of almost 8,000 hectares of community forest land included in the concessions.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY AND ALICE CUDDY

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