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Cambodian Activists Call for International Sugar Boycott

by Puck LoCorpWatch Blog
September 11th, 2012

Mai was forcibly evicted from Bos village, Oddar Meanchey province, in October 2009. Photo: Community Peace-building Network

Human rights monitoring groups and Cambodian activists are calling for an international boycott of Tate & Lyle and Domino Sugar, who do business with sugar suppliers accused of participating in government-sanctioned land grabs and illegal evictions throughout rural Cambodia.

According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) more than 700,000 people who rely on subsistence farming, have been evicted from their lands to make way for sugar plantations. Some 51,000 people have been dispossessed in the past year alone. The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association estimates that 95 people were arrested and 48 people were imprisoned for protesting land grabs during 2011.

“For the past two years, we have called upon the companies that are producing and selling this sugar to provide restitution to those who have lost their land, homes and livelihoods to make way for their plantations,” the Clean Sugar Campaign – a coalition of local Cambodian groups - announced in July. “These companies have all failed to respond and take action to repair the harm that their business has caused to so many Cambodian families. So, today we are calling upon consumers around the world to stop buying their products.”

The coalition includes the Community Peace-building Network, Equitable Cambodia, Inclusive Development International and Community Legal Education Center.

The group has sent letters and filed complaints against Ly Yong Phat, Mitr Pohl, KSL, Ve Wong Group, Tate and Lyle Sugars and its parent company American Sugar Refining (owner of the Domino Sugar brand in the United States).

Cambodia’s unique history has made land title disputes very complicated. Since the Khmer Rouge government abolished private property during the late 1970s land ownership has been difficult, and often impossible, for villagers who have inherited ancestral land to prove in court. And even though a 2001 law meant to reverse the Khmer Rouge’s collective ownership of land stipulates that farmers who can prove they have worked their land for five years are entitled to ownership, nearly 90 percent of the country's 14.5 million inhabitants do not hold title deeds to the land they live and work on, a 2010 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report found.

After the UN supervised a return to democracy in the 1990s, the Cambodian government has made a major effort to develop agri-business and industry in the country. Nearly five million acres (roughly 12 percent of the country’s surface area) has been handed out in land concessions to private corporations, notably to the sugar industry. Last year saw a “record increase” that alarmed activists in the region, who cite effects including the destruction of endangered forests and wildlife, loss of traditional ways of life, and increasingly violent evictions and land disputes.

The result has been massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of people no longer able to sustain their families by farming, NGOs say. Many villagers have been forced to work at the sugar plantations where their farms used to be, employed by the very same people whom they watched shoot their livestock, raze their villages, and burn their homes.

"If we say there's no way we'll go to work in the sugarcane plantation then what will we have to eat? There's no work," Yi Chhav, a 68-year-old widow from the southwestern Koh Kong province told Agence France-Presse. She added that the irregular work at the plantation and her low wages made her feel like a “slave.”

In early August 200 displaced families from Koh Kong province in Cambodia argued in the Koh Kong Provincial Court that their lands were illegally confiscated and bulldozed six years ago by Koh Kong Plantation Co. and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co., two Thai and Taiwanese-owned subsidiary suppliers owned by the KSL Group, who sell their sugar to Tate & Lyle Sugars and Domino Sugar.

The villagers allege that the government and suppliers broke the law by incorporating separately the two KSL Group subsidiaries that, “despite serving a single business interest and essentially operating as one,” were granted a total of 19,100 contiguous hectares. The 2001 Cambodian Land Law states that no single corporation can be given more than 10,000 hectares (or 24,710 acres).  Official documents show that both corporations share a single office and were offered land concessions on the same day by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“No consultations with the farming communities were conducted and no compensation in advance was made,” the Clean Sugar Campaign said on its website.

In response, Ve Wong, the Taiwanese corporation that owns 30 percent of the two sugar companies named in the suit, claimed ignorance of reported “illegal activities, including alleged human rights abuses and seizure of land,” and publicly announced that “if there is any evidence proving that Koh Kong Plantation Co. Ltd. and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co. Ltd illegally acquired the land from residents, the companies are willing to return [the land] and compensate all relocation costs of all affected families.”

“Unfortunately we have heard similar promises from KSL Group before, to no
effect
,” activists with the Clean Sugar Campaign wrote in an August 14 response. “Numerous attempts in the past four years by concerned NGOs and representatives of affected people to meet with KSL and present this evidence in person have been ignored or rebuffed. Meanwhile, the community's civil complaint to the Koh Kong Provincial Court has been pending for over five years, and the Court has not yet investigated the case in a timely or reasonable manner.”

In addition to the international consumer boycott the campaigners are calling on the European Union Trade Commission to investigate the effects of “Everything But Arms,” a controversial European Union trade initiative adopted in 2001 that gives preferential trading status to so-called Least Developed Countries like Cambodia by lifting import duties and quotas on all commodities except arms and munitions.

Everything But Arms, say Cambodian NGOs, has fueled “the expansion of an industry implicated in gross human rights abuses, while perversely rewarding tycoons” and well-connected politicians. “The EU is effectively subsidizing land grabbing in Cambodia by giving preferential treatment to companies that have produced goods on stolen land," David Pred, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia executive director, told the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.