The government on Monday agreed to a comprehensive solution for rural families who have lost their land to well-connected agricultural plantations exporting sugar to the European Union (E.U.) duty free and will meet again early next month to discuss details.
The decision was made at a meeting between ministers, the E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia and sugar plantation representatives, and marks the first time the government has publicly agreed to address the problem.
Hundreds of families from Koh Kong to Kompong Speu province have accused the sugar plantations, which benefit from a free trade scheme—Everything But Arms (EBA)—that lets Cambodia export sugar to Europe duty free, of illegally forcing them off their land.
Neither the plantation owners nor government authorities who license them have ever admitted that land grabbing has taken place.
“The participants discussed extensively on the issues of families affected by the land concession[s] relating to sugar plantation[s] and refineries in different provinces and committed to continue to work diligently to solve these issues to the satisfaction of all concerned parties,” a statement on the Commerce Ministry’s website reads.
“The adhoc committee agreed to meet again on March 5, 2014 to review the process and procedures and to establish concrete action plans to resolve the land concession issues related to the sugar plantation[s] and refineries.”
Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol led the meeting, which was also attended by officials from the ministries of agriculture, environment and land management, six provincial governors or their deputies, sugar company representatives and E.U. Ambassador to Cambodia Jean-Francois Cautain.
Commerce Ministry spokesman Ken Ratha said CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, who owns at least one of the sugar plantations and is believed to have stakes in others, also attended the meeting.
Mr. Ratha said that both a lawsuit filed by Koh Kong province families in London against U.K. firm Tate & Lyle—the beneficiary of most of Cambodia’s duty free sugar—and the prospects of Cambodia losing the EBA privilege were motivating the government to finally help the affected families.
“The EBA issue is very important for the government, so our objective is to find a solution,” Mr. Ratha said.
In a statement on the meeting, the E.U.’s Mr. Cautain said he hoped to see a solution for the affected families “as soon as possible.”
“We attended the meeting and reiterated our concern that the government finds appropriate solutions without delay,” he said.
“We find this initiative by the Royal Government an opportunity to find solutions that can benefit all stakeholders. We hope to see practical solutions arising from this initiative as soon as possible.”
Though sugar accounted for a small fraction of the $2.32 billion worth of goods Cambodia exported to the E.U. in 2012, the bad—and allegedly illegal—behavior of the plantations has sullied the trade scheme’s image.
The European Parliament has twice asked the E.U. trade commissioner to investigate and end trade benefits to Cambodia if the allegations of sugar plantation abuses are proven true.
Families who have suffered at the hands of the plantations want compensation for property they have lost, their land back, or more land if they have received some already.
State-run news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP) reported Tuesday that compensation was on the table and that a “third party” may be needed to evaluate the system the government eventually comes up with to decide how much each family should be compensated.
AKP also reported that there were “discrepancies” between the figures the government and the E.U. had for how many families ought to be included in the compensation scheme.
Koh Kong provincial Governor Bun Leut, who attended Monday’s meeting, said local authorities would be collecting more information about the communities affected by the sugar plantations in his area between now and the adhoc committee’s next meeting.
“In principle, we will ask the local authorities to visit the sites and write reports that will be sent to the Commerce Ministry,” he said.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, one of the NGOs that has been helping families hurt by the plantations, said any comprehensive solution should also guarantee that court cases against villagers being sued for a dispute with the plantations be dropped.
“This is really a good development,” he said of the new committee and its pending plan.
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