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Soldiers from Brigade 41 transport timber out of the former Angkor Sugar concession.
Soldiers from Brigade 41 transport timber out of the former Angkor Sugar concession. Heng Chivoan

The bitter aftertaste of a sugar deal gone bad

Houy Mai has lost everything to the global demand for cheap sugar and biofuel. The 54-year-old mother-of-eight has fought a years-long battle with Mitr Phol, Asia’s biggest sugar producer and one of three major suppliers to Coca-Cola.

Her family was left homeless and without a sustainable income in 2009 after military police set fire to her house – along with about 100 others – in Kaun Kriel commune’s Bos village. Her children have been forced to leave school to find jobs, and her youngest child was born in prison, where Mai was jailed on charges linked to her opposition to the plantation company.

Her husband died earlier this year. She says it was from the stress of not knowing where their next meal was coming from. Her tale is not unusual for the hundreds of families displaced by Mitr Phol, which is owned by Thai Chamber of Commerce president Isara Vongkusolkit, a man whose net worth of $1.5 billion makes him the country’s 20th richest.

But Mai places the blame ultimately on the world’s largest drinks maker.

Houy Mai was left homeless after being kicked off her land and was then imprisoned when she protested about it.
Houy Mai was left homeless after being kicked off her land and was then imprisoned when she protested about it. Heng Chivoan

“I think that what Coca-Cola has done here is illegal, because they buy sugar from this company that uses violence against villagers, forcefully takes over our land, and then Coca-Cola makes drinks to sell back to us,” she says.

“I don’t have a problem with Coca-Cola buying sugar from farms in Cambodia, but they need to find somewhere else to plant [sugar cane] that does not affect people like this.”

That Mitr Phol planted fewer than 220 hectares of sugar at its Oddar Meanchey plantations – about 1 per cent of what it promised – does not change things for Mai and other villagers in the area.

Their complaints were taken to the Thai Human Rights Commission, and in 2011, the concession holder switched to growing cassava for biofuel after Thailand banned Mitr Phol from importing sugar from Cambodia. Meanwhile, those evicted and others who have managed to hold onto their homes struggle to put food on the table, some resorting to foraging for wild mushrooms to earn enough money for a bowl of rice.

In March, the government issued a decree that cancelled Mitr Phol’s concessions, covering about 20,000 hectares – almost two times the legal limit.

But the area now swarms with soldiers who have taken over numerous sawmills allegedly operated before the pullout by Mitr Phol subsidiaries Angkor Sugar, Cane and Sugar Valley, and Tonle Sugar Cane. Mitr Phol denies it was involved in the timber business.

Three of these large sawmills were operating last week, with soldiers lounging in hammocks aside towering piles of sawn lumber, waiting for military trucks to arrive at night and cart the precious wood to a drop-off point near the border, from where NGOs Action Aid and Oxfam allege it is smuggled into Thailand and processed into sleepers for railroad construction.

Burma padauk, known locally as thnong, made up the majority of the wood in sawmills visited by the Post. But locals say the trucks are coming less often now, and they suspect all the valuable timber in the concession has already been logged.

A sticky situation
Smean Te, 57, a representative of five villages affected by the Mitr Phol plantations, said locals had been forced off their farms in 2007, and although they heard they could return now that the company had left, no plans for restitution have been discussed officially.

Bos villagers watch as their homes are burned to the ground during their eviction from disputed land in 2009.
Bos villagers watch as their homes are burned to the ground during their eviction from disputed land in 2009. Photo supplied

“We’re afraid of the soldiers who are now logging in the area – we’re afraid they will take over the land,” he said.

Such fears are well-founded. The military unit operating on the concessions is Infantry Battalion 41, led by Major General Neang Kim, who was identified by villagers. The unit is sponsored by ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Chub Rubber Company, according to a 2010 decree that formalised a system of patronage between the security forces, government departments and private business interests.

Evidence Yong Phat was connected to the Mitr Phol concessions is not hard to come by. Local officials have told villagers to address any complaints against Mitr Phol to the senator; officials have frequently referred to the concessions as Yong Phat’s; and Angkor Sugar workers have been seen wearing T-shirts donated by the businessman. But on Tuesday he denied links to the sugar firms or knowledge of the ongoing logging racket.

“All the land that is in dispute, the company gave it back to the government about six months ago,” Yong Phat said. “It is up to the government what to do with the land because the company will not do their business anymore there … but you can be sure that those companies are not connected to me.”

Previously, Yong Phat has told NGOs that he was “only helping his Thai business partners” with the deals.

Mitr Phol denied Yong Phat held shareholdings in any of the Mitr Phol subsidiaries, but stopped short of commenting on allegations that the tycoon was involved on a less formal basis.

Locals say that the sawmills in the Mitr Phol concessions were taken over by a one-star Cambodian military general called “Kim” after the Thai firm pulled out, while a soldier at one of the mills said the military was processing huge quantities of thnong on behalf of “a private individual” whom he could not name.

Smean Te and other villagers are afraid of the soldiers that have taken over their land.
Smean Te and other villagers are afraid of the soldiers that have taken over their land. Heng Chivoan

General Touch Ra, chief of the working group on Cambodia-Thailand border relations, said Mitr Phol and the army had “worked well together to make the two countries peaceful”, following the conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple in 2011.

Village representative Te said the locals only found out about the company’s exit from a sympathetic official who was present at the meetings with Mitr Phol.

“We want our land back, and we demand compensation for our lost earnings from farming between 2007 and 2015,” he said. “Because of this dispute, our villagers have all migrated to Thailand to work and our kids have left school to find jobs.”

A long walk
In 2009, Mai’s home was torched as military police violently evicted her village from the Angkor Sugar concession to make way for planting. She says she sold 20 head of cattle to get together enough money to travel to Phnom Penh to lodge complaints with the government.

When her blistered feet reached the tourist town of Siem Reap, she rested at a pagoda, only to be arrested on charges that she had single-handedly cleared five hectares of forest in the concession per day.

At five-months pregnant, she was thrown in jail, raising her now six-year-old son behind bars for the first few weeks of his life.

“Now I just work odd jobs for people who hire me to farm cassava,” she says. “How can I log five hectares of forest per day? I’ve stopped believing in the courts and government. I sold 20 cows and buffalo to get the money to travel to Phnom Penh to seek justice from Prime Minister Hun Sen, but I’ve got nothing. Instead, I’ve lost all my property and now my husband.”

She walks reporters to a field of ploughed earth, the sun reflecting off the tin roof of another sawmill in the distance. “Here is where my village was,” she cries. “Please help me get my land back.”

Oun Sopheak, Samroang town governor, said the land is now under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the villagers would not be allowed to return.

“I believe those villagers already got compensation before the company started developing the area. So even though the company has stopped now, nobody can go back to that land because the land now belongs to the state,” he said.

Te and other villagers are preparing to file a complaint to the Agriculture Ministry, but they do not hold out much hope for a fair resolution through official channels.

A timber mill operated by soldiers in the former Angkor Sugar concession.
A timber mill operated by soldiers in the former Angkor Sugar concession. Heng Chivoan

Eang Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia, a local NGO working with the complainants, said that a joint EU-government study into the dispute was under way.

“We are now working with affected people to ask the government to return the land … and we also continue to ask the company to provide compensation for the loss of crops and property,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola – which is preparing to build its second Cambodian bottling plant later this year at a cost of $100 million – said the drinks giant “has been engaged in dialogue with our Thai suppliers” and that it “takes its land rights commitment seriously”.

“[W]e are working with our suppliers to help ensure respect for and prevention of violations of land rights across the Coca-Cola supply chain. We always try to work with suppliers on corrective action, if issues arise, because ultimately, our goal is to see the issue resolved.”​

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heantl@hotmail.com's picture

This called for a resettlement.

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