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Families File Complaint Against ‘Blood Sugar’ With US Office

Villagers in the provinces of Koh Kong and Kampong Speu have alleged that sugar plantations operated by Ly Yong Phat have pushed them off their land.

More than 200 families have filed a complaint in the US to gain land back from a sugar plantation in Koh Kong province.

PHNOM PENH - More than 200 families have filed a complaint in the US to gain land back from a sugar plantation in Koh Kong province.

Villagers claim at least 450 families have been evicted from 1,000 hectares in Sre Ambel district, to make way for sugar cane that is grown for a US-based sugar compnay.

The complaint was filed with the help of local and international rights groups to the US National Contact Point, a government office that helps mediate disputes with multinational companies. Critics call the product “blood sugar,” and it has raised concerns in European parliament and amid local rights groups.

EU lawmakers passed a resolution earlier this month censuring Cambodia for ongoing rights abuses and forced evictions, including those for sugar plantations and other agricultural developments. That censure could lead to the suspension of imported goods under preferential trade agreements, following an investigation by a European commission.

US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said the embassy was continuing to follow developments.

The complaint against New York-based American Sugar Refining seeks land lost in a 2006 land concession, Earth Rights International and the local Community Legal Education Center said in a joint statement Wednesday. That concession involves land owned by powerful ruling party official Ly Yong Phat, who has become embroiled in an ongoing dispute with villagers over his cane plantations in Koh Kong.

“American Sugar Refining, the world’s largest sugar cane refiner and best known for producing Domino Sugar, holds an exclusive contract to buy all the sugar produced at Koh Kong, where villagers were illegally evicted from their land without fair or adequate compensation,” the statement said. “The villagers are now facing impoverishment, malnutrition and other social deprivations.”

European lawmakers too have raised concerns for sugar from land concessions linked to rights abuses. In a statement this week, EU parliament “urged the Cambodian government to cease all forced land evictions until a transparent and accountable framework guaranteeing adequate compensation and suitable alternative accommodation is in place.”

Local rights advocates said Cambodia should heed increasing calls for improving its land concessions. Prime Minster Hun Sen has said such concessions have now been banned, but local media continue to report land grants and displaced villagers.

Luon Sovath, an activist monk who monitors such concessions, said the ongoing land abuses are affecting Cambodia’s international reputation, while at the same time keeping many people mired in poverty.

“When Cambodia does not follow [the international community], Cambodia will move toward communism again, toward dictatorship again,” he said. “So suffering and hardships will happen, leading to the loss of integrity, sovereignty and in-country peace.”

Cheam Yiep, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismissed the international criticism.

“I really regret that those people believe in and see the complaints of criminals, and also dare not enter Cambodia,” he told VOA Khmer. “It doesn’t mean we are all here completely ignorant, have learned nothing, and don’t think of Cambodia at all.”

However, Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for the opposition, said the EU has called for a commission to investigate “blood sugar” and for a temporary ban to a preferential trade agreement called “Anything But Arms.” That means agricultural products, among others, will not get preferred status, hurting exports, which play a role in keeping Cambodia’s economy growing.

“I strongly urge the government to accept what the EU resolution calls for, so that it won’t ultimately lead to the suspension of their assistance, which subsequently hurts our poor farmers, people and development,” she said. “The best way out is that the company gives land back to farmers and allows them to grow sugar cane with a proper contract, to sell the products back at market price.”