KAMPONG SPEU PROVINCE— Three years ago, Pao had a farm and a charcoal stove near a stream in a community called Omlaing in western Cambodia. The farm gave her rice, charcoal sales gave her extra income and the nearby forest provided edible and medicinal plants.
There was always enough food on the table. But in 2010, the bulldozers came, accompanied by troops from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Pao and her fellow villagers were told their land had been leased to a company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a powerful senator and businessman with the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), for a sugarcane plantation.
Some villagers had documents proving they owned the land but even so, their homes were razed, their farms and forests ploughed over and their water diverted to irrigate the plantation.
Their story underscores the corruption, abuse of power and impunity for which Cambodia is notorious. It also suggests a European Union policy designed to alleviate poverty is exacerbating it, says a report published on Tuesday by two non-profits, Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International.
Pao, a 30-something mother whose name has been changed to protect her identity, went from being a farm and business owner to being a poorly paid laborer on a plantation that Cambodian rights groups say is exporting processed sugar duty-free to Europe under a preferential trade agreement.
Under the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, adopted by the European Commission in March 2001, Cambodian goods can enter the EU without import duties or quotas and sugar exports are guaranteed a minimum price.
Other plantations owned by Ly Yong Phat’s company – L.Y.P. Group – export through the EBA.
The EU says trade agreements like the EBA “bring real benefits to the people” and the preferential terms offered are “unmatched by any other developed country”. Critics say the EBA has led to serious and systematic human rights abuses in the Cambodian sugar industry and further impoverished its people.
“Life is very difficult these days,” Pao said, sitting outside her wooden hut and picking through her child’s hair in search of head lice.
The sugar company resettled Pao and her neighbors in the shadow of Pis mountain, where it is difficult to farm because the plots are small and the soil sandy and rocky. The only school in the area was not open when Thomson Reuters Foundation visited on a weekday afternoon.
“We have to work nine hours a day (on the plantation) and they only give us 12,000 Riel ($3),” she said. “A kilo of fish costs 15,000 Riel.”
Workers routinely faint under the blazing sun and Pao said she recently saw a neighbor coughing up blood.
“There are no unions or leaders to help us. Some of us were trying to ask for extra money but those who stood up were fired,” she added.
EU Policy Fueling Land Grabs?
The EBA grants preferential access to the European market for all products from Least Developed Countries (LDCs), except arms and ammunitions.
In the years following the agreement, Cambodia has become a major sugar-producing nation.
The amount of land leased to industrial agricultural firms for sugar production jumped from a “negligible” amount to more than 100,000 hectares between 2006 and 2012, according to a human rights impact assessment of the EBA in Cambodia called Bittersweet Harvest, compiled by Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International.
All tariffs and quotas for sugar were phased out for EBA countries in 2009. Since then, the value of Cambodia’s annual sugar exports jumped from $51,000 to $13.8 million in 2011, said the report, adding that 92 percent of exports went to the EU during this period.
“While the EU might not be driving the bulldozers, they are providing the gasoline by handing the perpetrators of violent forced evictions lucrative preferential access to the EU market,” David Pred, a managing associate at Inclusive Development International and one of the report’s authors, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In response to the report, the European Commission in Cambodia said the EU took “very seriously the issue of alleged land grabbing and forced evictions” relating to large-scale agro-industrial investments, adding there had been positive developments. These included a moratorium on new economic land concessions—large plots of land leased by the government to companies—and a large-scale land registration campaign to resolve land disputes, it said.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Professor Surya P. Subedi named these developments as positive in a September report to the Human Rights Council, the commission said, but rights groups have criticized both initiatives as ineffective.
The commission added that the EU would follow the conclusions of the Human Rights Council and human rights monitoring bodies closely to find out whether any “serious and systematic violations” had occurred and would take appropriate action if this were the case.
Pred said that the three major sugar companies, including L.Y.P Group, that have displaced thousands of people in Koh Kong, Kampong Speu and Oddar Meanchey provinces had publicly stated that they developed operations in Cambodia to take advantage of the EBA.
The sugar industry has been “one of the worst offenders in Cambodia’s land grabbing epidemic,” with violent forced evictions and other human rights violations accompanying its development, the report said.
It documented how villagers had been harassed, threatened and tricked into parting with their land.
The 23,000-hectare plantation in Omlaing also violates a law limiting Economic Land Concessions to 10,000 hectares. It includes at least 2,200 hectares of farmland belonging to around 1,000 families and 2,000 hectares of community forest, according to Cambodian rights group LICADHO.
Even so, the sugar companies “have been able to peddle their goods in Europe where they are rewarded with lucrative EBA trade preferences,” the report added.
The Sugar King
L.Y.P Group, along with Thai-owned KSL Group, Mitr Pohl Sugar Corp. also of Thailand and Taiwan’s Ve Wong, is at the forefront of the sugar industry in Cambodia.
It controls 86,000 hectares including 10 sugar and rubber plantations and a special economic zone, accounting for about 4.3 percent of all land concessions nationwide, said LICADHO.
L.Y.P also agreed to provide financial support to six units of the army after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a plan under which companies would provide donations to units of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Activists say L.Y.P. has used two of the six units it supports in forced evictions.
L.Y.P did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Pao didn’t think of resisting when the bulldozers turned up. They offered her $25 and help to build a new house.
“The company didn’t give us any options,” she said, as neighbors milled around and children played on the dirt road. In the distance, the roof of the sprawling factory glistened in the sun. “You move with something or nothing. Those who fought were treated really badly,” she added.
Nevertheless, some people have fought back, asking for fair compensation and recognition of their land rights, despite death threats and intimidation.
Pen Vichet and Sok Run, two farmers who are also local activists, lost five hectares of farmland between them. They have yet to receive any compensation.
“A hectare could produce about four tons of rice and you could get 1 million Riel ($250) for 1 tonne of rice,” Vichet said. “When you lose the land, you lose everything.”
The long-standing dispute between land owners and the sugar company has led to at least 100 protests and three orchestrated roadblocks, with 29 villagers charged in penal cases, LICADHO said.
Rights groups are calling on the EU to reform the EBA so trade preferences are only granted to beneficiaries that respect human rights. While Bittersweet Harvest acknowledged that the surge in Cambodian exports under the EBA had helped thousands of local people with jobs, predominantly in the garment and footwear industries, it said the price paid had been too high.
“This cannot justify … the destruction of thousands of other families’ livelihoods”, it said.
Prolonged Land Crisis
Land grabbing remains one of the most pressing human rights issues in Cambodia.
Land ownership is especially problematic in a country where legal documents were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Pol Pot’s regime abolished private property in a bid to create a communist agrarian utopia.
An estimated 80 percent of households in Cambodia today do not have land titles, leaving them vulnerable to land-grabbing by companies with powerful political connections.
Around 2.6 million hectares of land – an area larger than the country of Wales and close to 75 percent of Cambodia’s total arable land – had been granted for Economic Land Concessions as of December 2012, said Pred.
This contrasts sharply with the less than 7,000 hectares of land allotted to land-poor and landless farmers for Social Land Concessions as of December 2011 under a donor-supported program.
Prime Minister Sen launched the new land-titling scheme in June 2012 in response to criticism but Human Rights Watch said the campaign, which involved the use of 1,600 student volunteers dressed in military uniforms, lacks transparency and accountability and is conducted in a bullying manner.
“There is more and more violence associated with land concessions since the military is increasingly being used as private security for concessionaires and the number of people arrested each year for protesting land grabs has doubled over the past two years,” Pred said.
The government issued its moratorium on new land concessions in May but by June, LICADHO had documented the granting of at least 12 more concessions.