More than 200 families in southwest Cambodia on Wednesday called on Washington to intervene in a long-running dispute with a Cambodian-linked consortium, which they say did not pay them adequate compensation for land taken for production of sugar exported exclusively to the United States.
The move comes days after the European Parliament called for a probe into possible human rights abuses by Cambodian companies exporting to Europe and linked to questionable land concessions.
The 207 families from Sre Ambel district in Koh Kong province filed complaints over their dispute with the U.S. National Contact Point—an office within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which monitors disputes with multinational firms.
They wanted the U.S. government to pressure the New York-based American Sugar Refining (ASR), which buys sugar from one of the companies in the consortium that took their land, to mediate and help bring a resolution to the dispute which has been dragging on since 2006.
Villager Teng Kao said that the group decided to seek help from the U.S. because local courts and the Cambodian government have failed to resolve the dispute.
“We have been trying to file a complaint with the Cambodian courts since 2007,” he said.
“The provincial court prosecutor has summoned us at times, but now the court has transferred the case back to the land management department. This process will take a very long time.”
The complaint is the first filed under the OECD’s guidelines for multinational enterprises, which are a U.S.-endorsed international code of responsible business conduct.
Lawyers from the nongovernmental groups Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) and EarthRights International are representing the villagers.
ASR—the world’s largest sugar cane refiner, best known for producing Domino Sugar—is the exclusive importer of sugar from the Cambodian consortium operating in Koh Kong province, where the villagers say they were evicted from land without adequate compensation.
In 2006, Thai sugar manufacturer Khon Kaen Sugar Co. Ltd. (KSL), Taiwanese food company Ve Wong, and ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) Senator Ly Yong Phat formed two Cambodian companies to receive land concessions of around 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) for a large-scale sugar plantation and factory.
More than 450 families from Chuuk, Chikor, and Trapeng Kendal villages were forcibly evicted from their homes and lost farmland to make way for the development, and residents say many households lost their livelihoods completely.
Residents say the eviction involved beatings and shots fired by police.
CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, who has since sold his stake in the plantation and factory to partner Ve Wong, could not be reached for comment about the villagers’ allegations.
British company Tate & Lyle, which was purchased by ASR in 2010, is the sole exporter of KSL’s Cambodian sugar. The Koh Kong villagers contend that ASR has violated OECD guidelines by failing to exercise due diligence to prevent and remedy negative human rights impacts in Cambodia.
CLEC Land Project officer Ny Sophoan Neary said the NGOs had filed the complaint on behalf of the villagers in the hopes that the U.S. government would step in to resolve the long-running dispute.
“The villagers have been waiting for too long for this dispute to be resolved,” she said.
“They believe the U.S. is a country which respects human rights, so they filed a complaint for resolution.”
The National Contact Point can push ASR into mediation with the families, but cannot force the company to compensate them.
Investigating ‘blood sugar’
But in a resolution passed Friday in Brussels, the European Parliament has called on the European Commission to investigate the Cambodian land concession policies which allowed Senator Ly Yong Phat and his business partners to lease their sugar plantations.
The Parliament said that if companies which have leased land through the concessions are found to have committed rights violations, the European Commission should consider suspending trade benefits that allow them to export their sugar or other agricultural products to the European Union duty-free.
“[The Parliament] calls on the Commission to investigate the escalation of human rights abuses in Cambodia as a result of economic land concessions being granted for agro-industrial development linked to the export of agricultural goods to the European Union,” the resolution said.
It also called for the Commission to “temporarily suspend … preferences on agricultural products from Cambodia in cases where human rights abuses are identified.”
The resolution follows calls from Cambodian opposition party members to European countries not to purchase sugar from the Koh Kong plantation, calling the products “blood sugar.”
Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the resolution.
“The EU parliament has only considered the political aspects, without looking into details of the law,” he said.
Rights groups say hundreds of thousands of families have been forced off land due to concessions similar to the ones granted in Koh Kong over the past decade, and that the government is increasingly suppressing anti-eviction protests throughout the country, often through the use of violence.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen suspended all new land concessions in May, but several concessions have been given licenses since then, which the government says were already in the process of being granted before the order.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.