The bitter aftertaste of a sugar deal gone bad

(PHNOM PENH POST –  and ) – Houy Mai has lost everything to the global demand for cheap sugar and biofuel. The 54-year-old mother-of-eight has fought a years-long battle with Mitr Phol, Asia’s biggest sugar producer and one of three major suppliers to Coca-Cola.

Her family was left homeless and without a sustainable income in 2009 after military police set fire to her house – along with about 100 others – in Kaun Kriel commune’s Bos village. Her children have been forced to leave school to find jobs, and her youngest child was born in prison, where Mai was jailed on charges linked to her opposition to the plantation company.

Her husband died earlier this year. She says it was from the stress of not knowing where their next meal was coming from. Her tale is not unusual for the hundreds of families displaced by Mitr Phol, which is owned by Thai Chamber of Commerce president Isara Vongkusolkit, a man whose net worth of $1.5 billion makes him the country’s 20th richest.

But Mai places the blame ultimately on the world’s largest drinks maker.

Read the full story at the Phnom Penh Post

Human Rights Violations in Koh Kong Sugar Plantation Confirmed by Thai Human Rights Commission

June 3, 2015, Bangkok, Thailand – Hundreds of villagers were evicted when their land was illegally confiscated in 2006 to make way for a 19,100 hectare sugar plantation in Sre Ambel, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Almost a decade after the forced evictions, a long-awaited final report by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) has recognized the human rights violations at the plantation.

The sugar plantation is operated by politically-connected Cambodian companies, controlled by Thai sugar giant Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd. (KSL), which had an exclusive sales contract with Tate & Lyle Sugars (T&L) in the United Kingdom. The report, recently made publicly available, finds that KSL bears the responsibility for human rights violations due to its decision to receive and benefit from the land concession which resulted in these violations, even if the company did not itself commit the abuses.

In 2010, villagers from the affected communities filed a complaint before the NHRCT with the support of EarthRights International (ERI) and Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA). The complaint alleged that the Thai corporation KSL, through Cambodian subsidiaries, obtained economic land concessions (ELCs) in violation of Cambodian laws and international human rights standards. In mid-2012, the NHRCT released a preliminary statement finding evidence that KSL was responsible for human rights violations against the affected communities through the actions of its Cambodian subsidiaries.

The final report of the NHRCT confirms those preliminary findings, stating that the land grab was in violation of the right to life, the right to self-determination, including the right to manage and benefit from natural resources, and the right to development of the residents of Chikhor, Chhouk and Trapeng Kendal villages in Sre Ambel, Koh Kong province. “The communities at Sre Ambel have spent eight years pursuing the return of their land”, said Maureen Harris, Mekong Legal Director at EarthRights International. “The NHRCT has acknowledged their suffering and loss of livelihoods and we hope that the companies involved will be prompted to resolve the dispute in a fair and transparent manner.”

In Cambodia, forced evictions due to large-scale ELCs being granted to business enterprises are a major human rights concern – resulting in widespread displacement, severe livelihood impacts, violent evictions and property destruction – well documented by independent experts and international human rights groups. Professor Surya Subedi, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, has reported on the Koh Kong land grab and associated human rights abuses, highlighting the need for the human rights violations to be addressed and remediated.

The report on the Sre Ambel plantation has implications for other communities affected by forced evictions and illegal land confiscations. This includes sugar plantations that have raised serious human rights concerns, as highlighted in a report, Bittersweet Harvest, by Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International. “This is an important test case for addressing land grabbing in Cambodia. The report sends a clear message to companies invested in land concessions that they must abide by Cambodian laws and international human rights standards in their investments,” says Eang Vuthy, Executive Director of Equitable Cambodia.

The landmark complaint filed by the Sre Ambel communities to the NHRCT was the first to examine the human rights impacts of transboundary investment by a Thai company in a neighboring country. Dr Nirun Phitakwatchara, Commissioner of the NHRCT, says, “I think it is important to deal with the issue of business, human rights and the environment. It is important to send a message that despite the huge focus on economic development in our region, we must find a balance so that our natural resources are not exploited in such a way that it causes environmental damage and human rights violations of the communities which traditionally manage these natural resources.”

The NHRCT has proved to be one of the only forums available to communities affected by cross-border investments in large-scale projects in which community concerns can be heard and addressed. In its final report, the NHRCT highlighted the applicability of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, noting that all businesses enterprises have an obligation to ensure respect for human rights in their business activities, regardless of where they operate and even if they have not directly contributed to the human rights abuses.

Daniel King, Mekong and Myanmar Programs Director at EarthRights International, notes, “This is a landmark decision for transboundary human rights protection. The NHRCT has made it clear that KSL is responsible for human rights abuses in its business operations in Cambodia. KSL should publicly acknowledge its human rights obligations and provide just satisfaction to villagers whose human rights have been violated.”


Press Release in Thai
Press Release in Khmer
Thai Human Rights Commission Report in Thai
Thai Human Rights Commission Report in English (Unofficial Translation)

Sugar company pulls out

PHNOM PENH POST (11 May 2015 – Daniel Pye) – Asia’s largest sugar producer, Thailand’s Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation, has withdrawn from its three plantations in Oddar Meanchey province following years of criticism over alleged illegalities and human rights abuses at the concessions, a development watchdog has said.

The three Mitr Phol concessions in Oddar Meanchey’s Samroang and Chongkal districts, totalling nearly 20,000 hectares, were visited by representatives of the Coca-Cola Company last year as part of its supply-chain audit after it committed to a “zero tolerance” approach to land grabbing in 2013.

Mitr Phol, one of three major suppliers to Coca-Cola, owns stakes in three sugar firms in Cambodia: Angkor Sugar, Tonle Sugar Cane, and Cane and Sugar Valley.

“Mitr Phol has decided to withdraw from the concessions,” Eang Vuthy, executive director of local NGO Equitable Cambodia, said yesterday. “We have informed the government land committee. The EU and government are conducting a joint audit of the concessions, so we are advocating that they expedite the case.”

“The legal land owners were evicted and they should be compensated and their land returned,” he added.

Read more at Phnom Penh Post.

ANZ racks up record profits on the backs of Cambodia’s poor

ANZ reported half-year cash profits of $3.68 billion last week, a record for the Australian bank. Much of that growth has come in Asia, a market that the bank has pursued aggressively, generating extraordinary wealth for its investors.
But ANZ’s “super regional strategy” has come at an extraordinary human cost in Cambodia. Between 2011 and 2014, the bank lent tens of millions of dollars to finance a controversial sugar company. Relative to the bank’s enormous profits, the loan was small. Yet it contributed to outsized misery for thousands of poor villagers.

Phnom Penh Sugar, the company that received the loan, established the plantation and a cane refinery on land that over 1500 rural families owned and depended upon for their livelihoods. When the families refuse to move, the politically connected company colluded with the Cambodian military and local authorities to forcibly evict the landowners, bulldozing their crops and homes and arresting those who resisted.

Compensation – for the few who received anything – was a small fraction of the market value. Stripped of their farms and ability to make a living, the families have fallen into debt and further poverty. In a cruel twist, some of the victims now find themselves with no option but to undertake back-breaking, dangerous work for the very company that grabbed their land – including children as young as seven, according to dozens of interviews we conducted with their parents.

Rather than use its vast financial resources to make things right, ANZ has wiped its hands of the matter. The bank severed ties with Phnom Penh Sugar after it was encouraged to repay the loan prematurely in July. ANZ now claims that it no longer bears any responsibility to the families.

This is a shocking and callous abdication from a bank that advertises itself as being ethical.

On the contrary, ANZ does bear responsibility for the suffering it helped make possible. The bank made a sizeable profit by financially backing a business built on the impoverishment of more than a dozen local communities.

Ignorance is not an excuse. If the bank had done any amount of due diligence before the deal – a simple Google search would have sufficed – it would have learned that Phnom Penh Sugar’s owner, Cambodian tycoon Ly Yong Phat, has been implicated in a number of other large-scale land grabs and human rights abuses. If it chose not to do this basic research, that’s sheer negligence.

Either way, ANZ has a legal – and moral – obligation to provide reparations to those affected.

In October, with the support of our organizations, 681 displaced families filed a complaint against ANZ with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. ANZ has pledged to follow OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which require companies to ensure that they are not causing or contributing to human rights violations. Investing in Phnom Penh Sugar was a flagrant violation of those guidelines.

Social and environmental guidelines such as these are vital in today’s globally connected economy. As this case shows, decisions made in a boardroom in Melbourne can have devastating consequences for villagers farming the rice paddies of southern Cambodia – and beyond.

Corporations and financial institutions, whose business dealings stretch across continents, must do everything in their power to ensure that they are not causing or enabling human rights abuses. And when abuses occur, they must come clean and work with affected communities to make things right.

ANZ’s directors no doubt hope that this unpleasant business goes away. This week, they’ll want the focus to be on the enormous financial returns they have generated for their shareholders, not a controversy in far-off Cambodia.

But unlike ANZ, victims like Chorm Srey Noun can’t walk away from this disaster. Chorm owes a local bank at least $5,000, money she borrowed to rebuild her life after the theft of her land. That’s a fortune for a 53-year-old Cambodian villager with no land and no real prospect for employment.

In a turn worthy of Kafka, Chorm spent 134 days in jail after a local court convicted her of “stealing” her own land from Phnom Penh Sugar, despite having documents proving she owns it. Living in fear of re-arrest, she has little faith that Cambodia’s institutions will rectify her situation.

ANZ’s corporate slogan is “We live in your world.” The phrase suggests empathy for other cultures. For Chorm and thousands of Cambodians, though, these words have taken on a terrible and sinister meaning. If ANZ wants to continue advertising itself as an ethical business, then it must divest itself of this ill-gotten gain and use those funds to help the victims get back on their feet.

David Pred is the founder and managing director of Inclusive Development International. Eang Vuthy is the Executive Director of Equitable Cambodia. The two organizations are representing the displaced families in their complaint to the OECD.

Read the original article at

Sugar Exports to Europe Drop After Peak Year

Cambodia’s sugar shipments to Europe fell by 41 percent last year, according to trade data from the European Union (E.U.), a significant drop for one of the country’s most controversial exports.

Dubbed “blood sugar” by the families that have lost their homes and farms to sugarcane plantations across the country, Cambodia in 2014 shipped 38,000 metric tons of the commodity to the E.U.—its main market—worth $17.4 million.

Last year’s total is a little over half as much sugar as Cambodia exported to the E.U. in 2013, but still the second most of any year since 2009, when Europe granted duty-free access to Cambodian goods under its Everything But Arms trade scheme for least developed countries.

Italy and Bulgaria bought up most of last year’s sugar exports. The rest went to the Czech Republic, Greece, Spain and Belgium.

Though sugar makes up a small fraction of what Cambodia exports to the E.U., it has arguably been the country’s most controversial commodity.

Read the full article

Coke’s Zero Tolerance for Land Grabs Proves Difficult to Fulfill

Bottles of Coca-Cola are seen at the Safeway store in Wheaton Maryland

(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Coca-Cola Co has made a good start in axing land grabs from its supply chain, but it must work harder in proving that its bottlers and sugar suppliers do not violate land rights, development experts told the company.

Coke declared two years ago that land grabbing is unacceptable, and as a major buyer of sugar pledged to help protect land rights of local communities, including evaluating its top 16 cane sugar-sourcing countries by 2020.

In the first of those reports released earlier this month, Coke said it found no evidence of land rights abuses by five sugar mills it buys from in Guatemala.

However, those findings raised questions at a World Bank conference on Land and Poverty, given Guatemala’s long and often violent history of land conflict and human rights abuses.

Karol Boudreaux, land expert at the Cloudburst Group consulting firm, said the report was too superficial, relying on the word of sugar mill operators without digging deeply into their land acquisition methods.

“How did the owners acquire title documents? Were communities consulted? Were they compensated for their land? Were women’s title considered?” Boudreaux said at the World Bank session on Tuesday.

“I cannot tell from the evidence that Coke presents,” she told Ed Potter, the company’s director of global workplace rights, who agreed to take her advice and improve the company’s review processes.

In Cambodia, Coke faced criticism for benefiting from massive land thefts orchestrated by government officials for agribusinesses, including one of Coke’s major sugar suppliers, said David Pred of the human rights group Inclusive Development International.

Thousands of Cambodians were violently displaced by police and military, who stole their crops, burned their homes and bulldozed their land for sugar companies, said Pred, managing director of the California-based organization.

“What we are talking about here is grand theft,” he said, adding that Coke failed to conduct serious due diligence on its supplier.
Read the full article

The Guardian: European Union agrees to investigate Cambodian sugar industry

European Union agrees to investigate Cambodian sugar industry

Booming industry faces allegations of human rights abuses such as land grabs, forced displacement and child labour

(Kate Hodal – Phnom Penh, 10 December 2014) –  The European Union has agreed to investigate forced displacement claims in relation to Cambodia’s troubled sugar industry. The move could see thousands of villagers compensated for illegally confiscated land and loss of earnings.

The Clean Sugar Campaign – which has been calling on the EU to investigate its trade ties with Cambodia’s sugar industry since 2011 – called the development “a pivotal step towards justice for thousands of Cambodian people who have suffered enormously at the hands of the sugar industry”.

The joint EU-Cambodia scheme has already been approved by the Cambodian government and is intended to “ensure redress” and restore “pre-project living standards and income levels” for those affected, campaigners said.

The EU confirmed the scheme in a statement seen by the Phnom Penh Post, in which it said the aim was to “fund technical expertise to develop a mechanism to audit claims in relation to sugarcane plantations in Cambodia, and ensure the implementation of any remedial measures that are found necessary”.

Cambodia’s booming sugarcane industry – which benefits from a preferential EU trade scheme called the Everything But Arms treaty – is rife with allegations of human rights abuses, among them illegal land grabs, forced displacement and child labour. Human rights groups claim that at least two villages in three provinces were entirely destroyed and thousands of hectares of rice plantations and orchards confiscated to make way for sugar plantations, leaving up to 2,500 families without homes, land or food.

Guardian report last year into the Thai-owned KSL plantation – which exported sugar to the EU for the sugar multinational Tate & Lyle – investigated allegations of child labour and other abuses. Villagers also described being subjected to physical violence, having their homes and property destroyed, their land confiscated without their consent; they also claimed one person had been killed while land was being forcibly cleared.

Booming industry faces allegations of human rights abuses such as land grabs, forced displacement and child labour

(Kate Hodal – 10 December 2014, Phnom Penh) – Some 200 Cambodian families are currently involved in a lawsuit against Tate & Lyle, claiming the company knew, or should have known, of the allegations against KSL, and allege the sugar company should compensate them for the value of the sugar grown on the land they say still belongs to them.

Following the Guardian investigation into alleged abuses, the drinks corporations Coca-Cola and Pepsico agreed to a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding land grabbing in their supply chain, while the ethical sugar coalition Bonsucrosuspended Tate & Lyle for failing to respond to allegations of abuse related to KSL dealings. The sugar company later resigned from Bonsucro in June this year.

Commencement of Cambodian ‘blood sugar’ reparations process a crucial step towards justice

(December 7, 2014) – The Clean Sugar Campaign welcomes the commencement of a joint EU-Cambodia process to assess displacement claims pertaining to sugarcane plantations in Cambodia. This development represents a pivotal step towards justice for thousands of Cambodian people who have suffered enormously at the hands of the sugar industry.

The European Commission has announced a tender for the procurement of independent experts to design a process for identifying, assessing and redressing legitimate claims of displacement impacts and losses resulting from the development of sugarcane plantations in Cambodia. The objective of the assessment, which has been agreed to by an Inter-Ministerial Committee of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), is to “ensure redress for…compensation deficits” and “the restoration of pre-project living standards and income levels” for affected people.

The announcement came in response to the long-standing call by coalition members of the Clean Sugar Campaign for the EU to investigate companies benefiting from the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme that are implicated in land-grabbing, forced evictions and other human rights abuses. The coalition has pressed for the withdrawal of the sugar industry’s trade preferences until affected communities are granted effective remedies, including the return of illegally acquired land and fair compensation for other losses. A comprehensive, independent assessment to determine and assess the value of specific household and communal losses has been a key demand of the campaign.

Following the release of the tender, Clean Sugar Campaign coalition members wrote to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini to welcome this long-awaited development and call upon the EU to establish clearly defined deadlines and benchmarks for the provision of redress to affected communities.

In order to ensure effective progress on the ground for affected people, the Clean Sugar Campaign urges the EU to tie the audit process to the withdrawal of trade preferences for sugarcane, under Article 19 of the Generalized System of Preferences regulation, if time-bound performance indicators are not met.

Read the full statement


Statement Regarding the Illegal Detention of Equitable Cambodia Staff

On Tuesday, 9 Sept. 2014, Cambodian authorities detained two employees of Equitable Cambodia (EC) without just cause. Ms. Meg Fukuzawa, a research consultant who has dual citizenship in the United States and Japan, and Mr. Lida Sok, a Cambodian research officer, had been in Oddar Meanchey province since last Monday to conduct field research on the human rights impacts of forced evictions resulting from the development of industrial sugarcane plantations. The plantations are owned by the Mitr Phol Group, one of Coca-Cola’s top three global suppliers. Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok were working to collect research data to provide to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, which is investigating Mitr Phol’s activities in Cambodia.

Around 4:30 p.m., four police vehicles attended Bos village where Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok had been conducting their research. In 2008, the rice fields of approximately 100 families in Bos village were seized to make way for sugarcane plantations.[1]

When officers approached the researchers, they immediately asked Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok to accompany them to the Oddar Meanchey provincial police station. The officers’ requests were denied, as by then, it was dark and the EC staff were concerned about traveling by motorcycle at night. An hour later, Long Sokun, the Deputy Police Chief of Oddar Meanchey, arrived at the village and asked to see Ms. Fukuzawa’s immigration documents. Ms. Fukuzawa did not have her passport in her immediate possession.
At approximately 8:30 p.m., a police vehicle attended Bos village and Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok were transported under duress to the provincial police station. The officers did not inform them of the reason for their detention, nor was an arrest warrant produced.

They were held in police custody and interrogated about their research activities for over three hours, after which Mr. Sok was released from police custody. However, he chose to remain with his colleague to act as her translator and to provide support while she remained in custody. At the police station, Ms. Fukuzawa attempted to show both Mr. Long Sokun and his assistant scanned copies of her Japanese and American passports, which were sent to Mr. Sok’s telephone. On both occasions, she was told that it was not necessary to provide such documents.

Police indicated to the researchers that they were asked to leave the village for their own safety because it was a remote area. Neither Ms. Fukuzawa nor Mr. Sok were concerned about their safety while undertaking their research at the village. The community members had treated the visitors with respect and hospitality. It was only after police arrived and detained them against their will that Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok felt their safety was at risk.

Ultimately, the authorities claimed that Ms. Fukuzawa was detained because she could not produce her original passport when questioned by the police in Oddar Meanchey. No charges were laid nor fines imposed.

Equitable Cambodia condemns the arbitrary detention of its employees, both in Oddar Meanchey and Phnom Penh. The absence of a passport upon request by police does not result in criminal sanctions. Moreover, neither individual was engaging in illegal activities. As such, there were no credible grounds to justify Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok’s detention in police custody, the former lasting nearly 24 hours. Without warrant or reasonable grounds to seek detention, police and immigration officers violated Ms. Fukuzawa and Mr. Sok’s constitutional right to not be arbitrarily detained and deprived them of their liberty without just cause.[2]

We the undersigned condemn the continued intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders in Cambodia. We call upon the competent authorities to investigate those responsible for ordering the illegal and unjust detention of Meg Fukuzawa and Lida Sok.

This statement is issued by: Equitable Cambodia, Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), Building Community Voices (BCV), Community Peace-Building Network (CPN), The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), Inclusive Development International (IDI), Focus on the Global South, Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), The NGO Forum on Cambodia (NGOF), Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation (CFSWF), Independent Democracy of Independent Economy Association (IDEA), Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Social Action for Change (SAC), and Cambodia Youth Network (CYN).


[1]LICADHO, Bos/O’Bat Moan Village in Konkriel Commune, Samroang District, Oddur Meanchey Province (Briefing Paper) (Phnom Penh: LICADHO, 12 October 2009), online: <>.

[2]Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, 1993, Article 38(3): The prosecution, arrest, police custody or detention of any person shall not be done, except in accordance with the law.