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EU to probe sugar disputes

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 in April.

EU to probe sugar disputes

Cambodia has taken a “crucial step towards justice” by launching a reparations program for thousands of villagers who were forcibly evicted to make way for industrial sugar plantations, according to campaigners.

Resettlement experts hired by the European Commission will draft a scheme to assess the claims of thousands of villagers who were evicted with little or no compensation to make way for sugar plantations in Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

“The EU will fund technical expertise to develop a mechanism to audit claims in relation to sugarcane plantations in Cambodia, and ensure the implementation of any remedial measures that are found necessary,” the EU said in a statement yesterday.

The move towards reparations, which followed a February meeting where senior government officials, sugar companies and the EU agreed to work towards a resolution, was welcomed by villagers and campaigners.

Chan Sokhoeun, a representative of the Thpong community in Kampong Speu province’s Omlaing commune, said the villagers’ living standards had dropped significantly since their land was taken by ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar company.

“We now work on [what was] our own farmland as slave workers for the sugar company,” he said.

More than 2,500 families like Sokhoeun’s were forcibly evicted to make way for sugar plantation developments in recent years.

Tycoon Yong Phat owns several businesses at the centre of the disputes over what rights groups have labelled “blood sugar”.

The Post discovered children as young as 7 years old working on a plantation owned by the businessman in early 2013. After the use of child labour was revealed, the company sought to end the practice, which it blamed on sub-contractors. The plantation was financed with loans from ANZ Royal Bank, which severed ties with Phnom Penh Sugar months later.

Most evictees were left landless or given new plots that cannot support farming.

Seng Nhak, director of Phnom Penh Sugar, yesterday said the company welcomed the audit. “Phnom Penh Sugar has already been in discussion with the government and the EU and fully supports an independent and objective assessment,” he said.

According to the Clean Sugar Campaign, the EU-led assessment will seek to “ensure redress for … compensation deficits” and “the restoration of pre-project living standards and income levels” for affected people.

In January, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the bloc’s executive body to urgently act on a preferential trade scheme called Everything But Arms (EBA), which campaigners said in a statement yesterday had “incentivised an extremely abusive industry”.

“We hope that this will be a step towards justice for thousands of Cambodian people who have suffered from land grabbing and resources destruction,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia.

The “EU has an obligation to ensure that its policy, including trade, doses not contribute to human rights violations and destruction of the environment”, he added. “If the appropriate resolution can not be reached, the EU must take firm action to correct this situation.”

Following the reports of abuses at a Koh Kong plantation run by a Thai sugar company, drinks giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola said that they would adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to land grabs.

Representatives of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The dispute over Yong Phat’s Kampong Speu plantation prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s younger sister, Hun Sinath, last week, purportedly because she was frustrated by the lack of action against Yong Phat over the alleged abuses.

Sokhoeun, of the Thpong community, urged the EU’s experts to meet with villagers while they prepare for the assessment.

“If they only talk to the company and local authorities, they will not help to solve our land dispute,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA

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