Cambodian villagers ask for US mediation of human rights & land confiscation dispute

In 2006, farmland crucial to the economic survival of three villages in Cambodia was illegally confiscated and converted to a sugar plantation and processing factory.  Community members have since gone to great lengths to get their land back from the well-connected Cambodian companies that occupied it.  But they haven’t stopped there.  Instead, they have begun a worldwide quest to hold all the beneficiaries of their suffering to international human rights and corporate responsibility standards, from the plantation owners to the processors to the purchasers.  Today, with the assistance of ERI and the Community Legal Education Center of Cambodia (CLEC), the villagers brought that quest to Washington, filing a request with a U.S. Government office to mediate their dispute with the ultimate buyer of the Cambodian sugar, American Sugar Refining (ASR).

In 2006, Thai sugar manufacturer Khon Kaen Sugar Co. Ltd. (KSL), Taiwanese food company Ve Wong, and powerful local Senator Ly Yong Phat formed two Cambodian companies to receive land concessions in Koh Kong Province for a large-scale sugar plantation and factory.  KSL made a deal with Tate & Lyle, a British company, to export all its Cambodian sugar through Europe’s Everything But Arms trade promotion initiative.  ASR, best known for producing Domino Sugar, bought Tate & Lyle’s European sugar operations in 2010. 

However, the Koh Kong land was not vacant at the time.  In fact, it was occupied by residents of the villages of Chuuk, Chikor, and Trapeng Kendal, who have well-documented possession rights under Cambodian law.  Over 450 families were forcibly evicted from their homes and lost farmland to make way for the development.  Many households lost their livelihoods completely, and families that once sustained themselves by farming diverse crops and raising cattle have been reduced to poverty and malnutrition.  The government’s actions violated Cambodian laws requiring consultation with affected communities and environmental impact statements, and limiting the size of land concessions.  

Cambodian villagers discussing the situation in Koh KongCambodian villagers discussing the situation in Koh Kong

“For the villagers who were expelled, their land means everything – in losing it, they have lost their source of food, wealth, and security. The crisis is now affecting future generations too, since farmers have had to pull their children from school to work or guard cows from straying onto the plantation, where company guards may shoot them or hold them for ransom,” explained Vuthy Man of CLEC.

Community members have taken the local plantation company to court in Cambodia, filed complaints against the parent company, KSL, in Thailand, and sought assistance from the European Union to review Tate & Lyle’s exclusive importation agreement, and complained to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  ERI and CLEC filed today’s complaint against ASR with the U.S. National Contact Point (NCP), a government office that handles disputes relating to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.  

This case is the first brought under the Guidelines, which are a U.S.-endorsed international code of responsible business conduct, for corporate wrongdoing in the Kingdom of Cambodia.  The villagers believe ASR has not acted consistently with the OECD Guidelines because, as the buyer of all of the sugar produced at the Koh Kong plantation and factory, it is expected to exercise due diligence and use the leverage it has with its business partners to prevent, mitigate, and remedy negative human rights impacts.