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Thursday, July 05, 2012

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Cambodians call for ‘blood sugar’ boycott

Campaigners on Wednesday called for a boycott of Cambodian “blood sugar” over claims that increasing production had resulted in human rights abuses.

Representatives from the Cambodia Clean Sugar Campaign said crops had been razed, homes burned and animals shot after thousands of hectares of land concessions were set aside for industrial sugar cane production.

Cambodian sugar exports to Europe benefit from the Everything But Arms trade initiative, which allows low-income countries to export certain goods to the economic bloc with zero tariffs.

“Because of this policy, sugar plantations have been growing quickly,” said Eang Vuthy of rights group Equitable Cambodia. “We see people are losing their land instead of benefiting.”

Community representatives said villagers had lost farm- and pasture land.
“If you are buying this sugar, you are buying our blood,” said Phol Vannak from a community in Kampong Speu province in south-western Cambodia where about 2 000 families have been affected by the land concessions.

Civil society groups in Cambodia have called for the European Union to investigate alleged human rights violations while campaigners have demanded adequate compensation for affected communities.

They also called for a consumer boycott of companies selling sugar grown on disputed land, including Tate & Lyle Sugars.

A spokeswoman for Tate & Lyle PLC said the company sold its sugar division to T&L Sugars Ltd, part of American Sugar Holdings, in 2010.

The representative said the operation was now running under the name Tate & Lyle Sugars and referred all further questions to them. Tate & Lyle Sugars did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper on Wednesday quoted Chheang Kimsun of producer Phnom Penh Sugar Co as saying a campaign against the industry would hurt development. He added that a high-profile dispute in Kampong Speu province's Omlaing area had been solved two years ago.

Politicians have previously raised concerns about the Cambodian industry. Last year, EU parliamentarian Cecilia Wikstrom said she would push for the EU to suspend trade preferences for Cambodian sugar.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said in April that Europe was “worried” about economic land concessions in Cambodia and he had discussed the issue with Cambodia's commerce minister, Cham Prasidh.

A government spokesman said Tuesday that communities should file complaints about concessions in the courts.

Land disputes are a pressing issue in Cambodia. The country's land tenure system is weak since the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime abolished property rights.Author: Ellie Dyer – Sapa-dpa
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EU scheme boosts Cambodian land grabs

An EU scheme to boost trade with developing nations is fuelling land grabs in Cambodia, activists say, with thousands evicted from their property to make way for a booming sugar industry.

Campaigners are taking their fight to European supermarkets, encouraging a boycott of Cambodian sugar, which they claim is often grown on land snatched illegally from rural farmers.

Yi Chhav said she had no choice but to return to her family plantation to work for the sugarcane grower that took her land, toiling for about $US1.50 ($A1.46) a day in the sea of swaying emerald green plants that swallowed her rice paddies.

"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," the 68-year-old widow told AFP at her modest home in southwestern Koh Kong province.

"How can we survive?" she said, adding that the irregular work makes her feel like a "slave" and her low income has forced her to pull her teenage daughter out of school.

Europe's "Everything But Arms" initiative is meant to help the world's least developed nations by lifting import quotas and duties.

But activists say it has sparked avoracious appetite for land in Cambodia's sugar industry, leaving more than 3,000 dispossessed families without fair compensation, while enriching well-connected investors.

Rights groups say the government has ignored residents' legitimate land claims by granting tens of thousands of hectares to local and foreign-owned sugar firms across the nation.

Land titles are a murky issue in Cambodia - the communist Khmer Rouge regime abolished property ownership during its murderous rule in the late 1970s - and disputes pitting developers and agricultural firms against villagers have sparked increasingly violent protests in the country.

Industry and government officials argue that there is compensation on offer for those affected, and that the sugar business is good for Cambodia because it creates jobs.

But activists say the compensation is inadequate. After years of seemingly futile protests, they are now urging the EU - and European consumers - to step in to combat what they term "blood" sugar.

"It is scandalous that the European Union permits this tainted sugar to be sold within its territory, but until the EU implements a ban on the import of goods produced on stolen land it is up to European consumers to say no to these products," said David Pred, a representative from the Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign.

The coalition of rights groups and representatives from affected communities this week launched a campaign urging shoppers to put pressure on Tate and Lyle Sugars to stop buying from Cambodian suppliers.

Their website - www.boycottbloodsugar.net - includes a video showing distressed villagers watching as rural buildings go up in flames.

The British-based firm, once part of the Tate and Lyle group but now owned by the US company American Sugar Refining (ASR), failed to respond to repeated requests from AFP for comment.

The EU's ambassador to Cambodia, Jean-Francois Cautain, told AFP the European Union was looking into the concerns.

"The government has already given us some documents and we are in the process of studying them and then we'll have an important discussion," he said, welcoming Phnom Penh's recent announcement that it would review all land concessions following a spike in conflicts this year.

Government spokesman E.K Tha said authorities were "on the right track" in addressing land disputes, but referred specific questions about grievances in the sugar industry to the companies running the operations.
Koh Kong, one of three sugar-growing provinces, has the country's oldest and most active plantation, exporting around 20,000 tonnes of sugar to the EU in 2011 - double the figure from 2010 - according to local rights groups such as Equitable Cambodia and Licadho.

Ruling party senator and Cambodian business heavyweight Ly Yong Phat, who has sold his stake in the Koh Kong operation but still has ties to other sugar plantations, told AFP there was little companies could do besides offering compensation because concessions were legally granted by the government.

"If it were my land, I would share with them, then the problem is over. But it's the state's land. So what can I do?" he told AFP.

Frustrated by the battle, some affected families in Koh Kong recently accepted a hiked cash settlement, from around 10,000 riel ($A243), said community leader Teng Kao.

But most are still holding out for a deal that makes up for the loss of their livelihoods.

"We can't live without our land. Every day we ask for our land back so that we can grow rice and crops like before," he said
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