The plantation extends as far as the eye can see, row after row of green leaves swaying against the dusky blue light until, finally, it merges with the horizon. There are no houses, no animals, no people. Just sugar.
Standing by a rickety wooden fence that separates her clapboard home from the field in front of us, Yoen Sarin, 29, waves her hand in an arc. “My land extended from there to just over there.” She narrows her eyes. “The company tried to bulldoze their way closer but I built this fence, and even though they’ve already knocked it down twice, I’m not moving. I keep rebuilding it.”
Yoen Sarin is just one of thousands of Cambodian farmers who claim they are losing their land and livelihoods to big sugar plantations, some of which are directly supplying the EU through companies such as Tate & Lyle Sugars.
Nearly 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) have been cleared in three provinces to make way for sugar plantations since 2006, activists allege – and most of that land, they argue, has been stolen from subsistence farmers.
Sugar is big business in Cambodia, thanks to a preferential EU trade scheme called Everything But Arms (EBA), which allows Cambodian sugar to be sold duty-free on the European market at a minimum price per tonne. Official figures show that 97% of Cambodia’s €10m (£8.5m) sugar exports went to the EU last year, and Tate & Lyle bought 99% of them.
Although the initiative is intended to bolster the world’s least-developed countries, the villagers say they have not profited from the deal at all.
“When the company came in May 2006, they bulldozed without consultation or any environmental impact assessment,” said Teng Kao, 52, a village representative from Koh Kong province who lost nearly 10 hectares to the plantations. “They bulldozed the fields and streams. They shot our animals. After about 100 families’ land was taken away, we started taking pictures.”
The “company” Teng Kao refers to is one of two Cambodian entities owned by the Thai group KSL. For the past two years, these companies have sold all of their sugar cane to Tate & Lyle. Now, Teng Kao and some 200 other villagers are taking their fight to the high court in London.
Backed by British law firm Jones Day, the villagers have filed a lawsuit against Tate & Lyle, claiming that KSL were complicit in government moves to evict them to make way for the plantations. They also say they were insufficiently compensated for the land they lost, and faced “multiple instances of battery and criminal violence” during which villagers were shot at and wounded, with one activist murdered.
The villagers are claiming compensation for some of the 48,000 tonnes – or roughly €24m worth – of sugar that Tate & Lyle’s London refinery has allegedly received since 2010. Tate & Lyle denies that its supplier, KSL, was involved in land clearances and claims that the land was owned by the government when it was sold to KSL.
Land rights are a highly contentious issue in Cambodia. Private deeds were abolished under the communist Khmer Rouge, leaving subsistence farmers vulnerable to recent surges in land grabs and mining and property developments. Campaigners estimate that nearly three-quarters of the country’s arable farmland has been granted to private companies as economic land concessions, resulting in the displacement of more than 400,000 people since 2003.
Under Cambodian law, land possession can be established using various legal documents, not just land deeds. As many of the villagers in Koh Kong claim to have such papers, they say their land was stolen from beneath their feet. “I’ve been living here since I was born – this is my ancestral land,” said Teng Kao
Tate & Lyle contends that it engaged a third-party organisation to ensure that KSL complied with legal, ethical and sustainability standards. The auditors concluded that land concessions were legitimate and that villagers who occupied the land “were given compensation and resettled by the Cambodian government prior to the concessions being granted”.
Tate & Lyle says KSL provided documentation to prove that compensation had been paid and alternative land parcels provided to the villagers affected, and says it is confident that the sugar it has purchased from Cambodia “is free of breaches of human rights”. But it also says it is ready to break its contract with KSL if “evidence is forthcoming of any wrong-doing by our supplier”.
Since they lost their farmland to the plantations, many villagers say they have been forced to seek work from the very company they are now suing. “I had to pull my kids out of school and send them to work on the plantation after they took our land away because we couldn’t afford to eat,” said Chea Sok, 38, a claimant in the lawsuit.
“We work together in the plantation now cutting 1,000 stems of sugar cane a day [for 79p]. It’s exhausting and hot and the bundles are so heavy for [my children], they get fever working in the field. They’ve hardly grown at all – sometimes we don’t even have enough rice to eat.”