The canes of wrath
Satiating the demands of the global sugar industry is big business for Cambodia’s sugarcane plantations. Yet accusations of human rights abuses and land grabs in the Kingdom have left a bitter aftertaste for many on the ground as companies vie for a larger slice of the pie. Images of bulldozed homes, shot animals and razed crops are not what European consumers expect to be confronted with when biting into a sugary treat. However, activists calling for an international boycott of US-owned Tate & Lyle Sugars, which is based in London, say this is what has happened in Cambodia in recent years as well-connected companies continue to flout the law in the pursuit of profit. … In the rush to expand Cambodia’s sugarcane plantations, land was illegally – and often violently – confiscated from hundreds of Cambodians, some of whom could do nothing but watch as their homes burned to the ground. Families that once enjoyed a regular income from farming diverse crops and raising cattle found themselves homeless and jobless. Villagers in Kampong Speu protested against a 2010 mass eviction following the allocation of 9,313 hectares of land to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company – owned by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) senator Ly Yong Phat – as an economic land concession (ELC). The demonstrators’ cries fell on deaf ears, and 16 were arrested following the torching of company offices. Responding to allegations that Phnom Penh Sugar forcibly evicted people from the land, Seng Nhak, Ly Yong Phat’s son-in-law and director of Phnom Penh Sugar, said its plantation in Kampong Speu has been the victim of a “misunderstanding” and that the company leases the land from the government. Cambodia’s ELC scheme allows the government to lease large plots of land to companies that agree to farm them. In recent years, more than two million hectares of land have been transferred mostly from subsistence farmers to agribusiness. While the farmers are entitled to compensation, the sum offered usually grossly underestimates the value of their land. … “In Kampong Speu, villagers very often have all the documents to prove that they are legally entitled to their land, based on possession rights,” says Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Phnom Penh-based NGO Licadho. “But the law is not fairly implemented and most of the people are still evicted without fair compensation.” Left with no income, villagers say they have little choice but to work for the plantations that took everything from them. In a single day, plantation workers cut up to 1,500 canes but earn less than $5. Earlier in the year, national and international media reported that children as young as seven were working on Phnom Penh Sugar’s Omlaing plantation. “We have issued regulations to forbid any use of under-age workers in our fields,” said Seng Nhak, adding that contractors would be fined $12.50 for a first-time offence and have their contracts terminated if it happens again. … Thai-owned Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Public Company Limited (KSL) circumvented Cambodia’s land law – which states that ELCs in excess of 10,000 hectares cannot be granted – by registering Koh Kong Sugar Industry (KKS) and Koh Kong Sugar Plantation (KKP) as two separate companies despite the fact that they operate as a single business interest. As a result, KSL managed to scoop a whopping 19,100 hectares in Sre Ambel district – nearly two times the legal limit – causing widespread displacement and impacting the livelihoods of hundreds of Cambodians. In some instances, children are forced into the fields to help support their families “While child labour is authorised under certain conditions in Cambodia, if systems are not in place to monitor and respond to national child labour law abuses, then it can be futile to impose fines,” said Simrin Singh, senior specialist on child labour for the International Labour Organisation (ILO). … Thai-owned Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Public Company Limited (KSL) circumvented Cambodia’s land law – which states that ELCs in excess of 10,000 hectares cannot be granted – by registering Koh Kong Sugar Industry (KKS) and Koh Kong Sugar Plantation (KKP) as two separate companies despite the fact that they operate as a single business interest. As a result, KSL managed to scoop a whopping 19,100 hectares in Sre Ambel district – nearly two times the legal limit – causing widespread displacement and impacting the livelihoods of hundreds of Cambodians. In some instances, children are forced into the fields to help support their families. … Taiwanese Ve Wong Corporation holds 30% of the two subsidiary companies, while Cambodian senator Ly Yong Phat held shares in both companies before selling them in 2010. … The lawsuit is the latest in a string of events that have increased pressure on KSL and Tate & Lyle Sugars. Following an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) released a statement last year citing evidence that KSL had violated the human rights of communities affected by its ELCs. “These families are [facing] starvation and suffering as they cannot access any plot of arable land. People were not consulted,” said Dr Nirun Pitakwatchara, NHRC’s commissioner. In November, a complaint was filed to the US National Contact Point, a government office that handles disputes relating to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. … The high-profile case has also been taken to the Cambodian courts and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and has led the EU to review its EBA trade agreement with Cambodia. … Last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to investigate “the escalation of human rights abuses in Cambodia”. In the meantime, with little other recourse, the destitute families of Cambodia’s sugar fields will continue to line the pockets of others.