Evictions at gunpoint

Evictions at gunpoint

Evictions at gunpoint

Updated 5 January 2012, 12:35 AEDT

Cambodia's sugar industry is undergoing a revival, but there is a bitter undercurrent to what would otherwise be a great success story.

Hundreds of farmers have been forced off their land, some of them at gunpoint, to make way for sugar cane plantations.

The new plantations are controlled by an alliance of foreign firms and powerful local interests, taking advantage of European Union trade initiatives designed to help least-developed-countries.

But rights groups are now concerned that the growing incentives enjoyed by Cambodia's sugar industry will only lead to more rural evictions.

Cambodia's sugar industry came to an abrupt halt in 1970 when first General Lon Nol and then the Khmer Rouge took over the country.

Now, with the help of foreign money and European Union (EU) tax breaks, the sugar industry is making a comeback. In January, Prime Minister Hun Sen proudly opened a new refinery in the country's south-west and in June, the first shipment of Cambodian sugar in four decades was exported to Britain.

"Laos and Cambodia, both Least Developed Countries, have seen a recent revamp of their sugar industry driven exclusively by foreign direct investment aiming at new export opportunities to Asia and the European Union under the so-called Everything But Arms initiative," said Dr Peter Baron, executive director of the International Sugar Organisation.

Everything But Arms is an EU scheme which allows Least Developed Countries to send goods to Europe tax free - with the aim of encouraging trade with poor nations, such as Cambodia.

The Cambodian government acknowledges the role of EU subsidies in the nation's developing sugar market.

"I think the EU policy is very helpful for Cambodia. If the EU doesn't charge any taxes for imports, it opens up new opportunities for foreign investors," said Khan Samban, the head of the Directorate of Agri-Business at Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture.

Concession or Dispossession?

The Cambodian government has added a further sweetener to the deal for foreign investors, allocating tens of thousands of hectares in economic land concessions for sugar cane plantations. Across the country, almost a million hectares across 16 provinces are allocated to economic land concessions, mostly for rubber tree, cassava and acacia plantations.

The details of how these land deals are done remain murky. What is clear is that the laws covering economic land concessions state the need for social impact assessments, public consultations and any resettlement issues to be resolved.

"The Contracting Authority shall ensure that there will not be involuntary resettlement by [the] lawful land holder," is just one clause of the 2005 Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In reality, that doesn't happen, says farmer Chuon Chhuon, from Amleang commune in Kampong Speu province.

"I am begging to keep only 200 square meters of land next to the highway, but the company doesn't listen and keeps clearing the land I asked for," said Chuon Chhuon.

"Sometimes in the morning, the company brings in bulldozers accompanied by military police carrying stun batons," said Mr Chuon.

He says he's lived on his land in Kampong Speu province for 10 years, and has developed orchards of mango and banana trees. That should be enough to secure his property. Because Cambodia's land title system was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, new laws give ownership to anyone who lives on the land for more than five years.

But laws mean little when powerful interests are involved.

Funds and Guns

When it comes to Cambodia's sugar industry, the key powerful player is Ly Yong Phat, a senator and businessman who owns one sugar plantation outright, is involved in several others and is a 20 per cent stakeholder in Cambodia's new sugar refinery.

Ly Yong Phat's main partners are Thai sugar giants Khon Kaen Sugar and Mitr Phol Sugar, as well as Taiwanese investor Vewong Corporation.

The sugar company they own together was named earlier this year as an official sponsor of army unit Battalion 313. Members of that battalion have turned up, with their weapons, to the scene of forced evictions, according to rights monitors.

"A number of these concessions have been accompanied by militarisation and serious human rights abuses," said David Pred, country director of Bridges Across Borders, which has been investigating the impacts of Cambodia's sugar industry.

"I'm referring here to forced evictions that leave families landless and homeless, destruction of property, violence including several shootings in the last year, and arbitrary arrest and detention of affected farmers," said Mr Pred.

Evictions and Violence

The sugarcane that supplied Cambodia's first shipment in four decades came from land in Koh Kong province, in Cambodia's south-west, where police and military police stood alongside the company bulldozers.

When farmers resisted being evicted from their land in 2006, police opened fire. One woman was shot in the foot, a man was shot in the arm and five others were injured.

The matter was resolved for some communities with a deal between Ly Yong Phat and the villagers, allowing the company to continue planting sugarcane but only on certain portions of land.

With the Koh Kong plantations at least partly cleared, Ly Yong Phat turned his focus to the country's north-west, the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Oddar Meanchey province.

Three large plots were granted to senior executives of Thailand's largest sugar producer Mitr Phol Sugar. While two of these plots share a border, their separate registration is a way of circumventing the 10,000 hectare cap on any single land concessions.

The concession overlapped the properties of 214 families. Video footage from October 2009, shows armed security forces announcing the eviction on a loudhailer and burning down more than 100 houses.

"After being made homeless, the women and children had to flee to the local temple to seek refuge, while the men fled to the jungle fearing arrest and retribution for resisting the forced eviction," said David Pred.

The latest battleground over land is in Kampong Speu province, about three hours drive from the capital, Phnom Penh.

There, residents are resisting resettlement because the small plots of land offered by the company would leave them nowhere to grow rice or cash crops, said Ouch Leng, from the land program at rights group ADHOC.

Mr Ouch said the relocation site did not have electricity, water, schools or health facilities, and was a long way from the nearest main road.

"The company and the government did not care about the living conditions for the people, they care only about the investment," said Mr Ouch.

Who's responsible?

The organisation Bridges Across Borders says that as well as the companies and Cambodian government, the EU should take at least some responsibility for the human rights abuses.

"We are extremely concerned that instilling this tariff-free status on Cambodia without requiring any environmental and social safeguards is encouraging the expansion of a model of industrial agriculture that is in fact very harmful to Cambodian farmers and rural communities, and has been directly tied to violence and the abuse of human rights, " said David Pred.

The EU says that's unfair.

"It's like accusing for instance, where there's a drunk driver killing a pedestrian, you accuse the manufacturers of cars of this killing," said Rafael Dochao Moreno, Charge d'Affairs of the EU Delegation to Cambodia.

"There is a relation, because the car has killed a person, but it is not a direct responsibility of someone that is manufacturing cars," said Mr Moreno.

He stressed that the EU is concerned about forced evictions and rights abuses in Cambodia, and provides funding for land rights groups in the country.

Mr Moreno said the EU will be raising issues of land grabbing and rights abuses with the Government in talks in October, but will not take any actions relating to Cambodia's sugar trade.

"What we cannot do at an European Union level is to say, 'Well, we are going to stop Everything But Arms, that is benefiting the whole of Cambodia because in a specific area in a land economic concession... an abuse has been committed with the people in that area'," said Mr Moreno.

The British company that reportedly signed a 5-year contract to buy Cambodian sugar said it will review its operations as part of standard checks.

"All our sugar suppliers are audited by an independent and internationally recognised auditing body to evaluate their social, ethical and environmental performance," said William Baldwin-Charles, head of media relations at Tate & Lyle.

"This is the first year our EU sugar refining business will have received sugar from Cambodia and therefore an independent audit will be undertaken within the next few months," said Mr Baldwin-Charles.

Last month, Tate & Lyle announced the sale of its EU Sugar Refining operations to American Sugar Refining Company for a reported US$330 million.

However, as part of the deal, the American firm has permission to use the Tate & Lyle brand when it comes to selling sugar around the world.

Ly Yong Phat and his Thai partners did not respond to requests for comment about Cambodia's sugar trade.

Meanwhile, in Kampong Speu province, the future is uncertain for those farmers facing off against the bulldozers.

"I have sought all the possible interventions, but they cannot be of any sort of help," said Chuon Chhuon.

"I have a family to feed, but I have lost hope for my life." Translations by Alex Khun, Moniroith Vann