Bittersweet Harvest


In recent years, there has been a surge in forced displacement resulting from land concessions for industrial sugar plantations in Cambodia. Motivated by the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential trade scheme for least developed countries, Thai sugar companies and a well connected Cambodian tycoon have developed industrial plantations in Cambodia to produce raw sugar for export to Europe. The EBA initiative provides duty-free access to the European market and a guaranteed minimum price for sugar that has been on average three times the world price. While the EBA scheme is intended to benefit the poor through job creation from export-led growth, the case of Cambodia’s rapidly expanding sugar industry tells a different story. 

In Cambodia today, the government is leasing vast quantities of land to private investors to develop large-scale agro-industrial plantations. The leased land often overlaps with the private land of smallscale food producers and the common lands and natural resources that sustain rural communities. Forcibly deprived of their productive base by local and foreign investors backed by state security forces, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who had pulled themselves out of poverty are once again struggling to survive. 

The sugar industry has been one of the worst offenders in Cambodia’s land grabbing epidemic. Its development has been accompanied by violent forced evictions and other human rights violations in the provinces of Koh Kong, Kampong Speu and Oddar Meanchey. Concessionaires have disregarded the entire gamut of social and environmental safeguards in the Cambodian regulatory framework, as well as their responsibility under international law to respect human rights.

What has confounded many observers is that after breaking a host of domestic laws and committing gross violations of international norms, these companies have been able to peddle their goods in Europe where they are rewarded with lucrative EBA trade preferences. The situation betrays the original intent of the EBA initiative as well as the commitments of the European Union (EU) to uphold human rights in all of its external actions. It has led to calls by Cambodian and European civil society organizations and the European Parliament to withdraw EBA preferences from Cambodian sugar until the human rights violations that have occurred in the sector are fully remediated. These calls have so far been dismissed by the European Commission, which argues that it lacks the necessary legal conditions to initiate the withdrawal procedure.


Equitable Cambodia, Inclusive Development International and the Hands off the Land Alliance have
therefore decided to conduct their own human rights impact assessment of the EBA initiative in Cambodia. The assessment follows the methodology proposed in the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessments of Trade and Investment Agreements, including the steps of a) screening, b) scoping, c) evidence gathering, d) analysis and e) conclusions and recommendations. In order to utilize limited resources most effectively, the scope of the assessment was limited to those most likely to be adversely affected. The sugar sector was selected for this reason during the screening phase due to the clear causal relationship between the growth of this sector and the EBA arrangement, and the well-documented forced evictions that have occurred alongside the development of the industry. 

The evidence gathered for the assessment included a desk review of primary and secondary materials, combined with in depth interviews, household surveys and focus group discussions with over 275 people, including local officials, NGO staff, community leaders and farmers from three provinces who lost their land due to industrial sugarcane development. 

The assessment begins with an examination of the normative content of the international obligations of the EU and its Member States, Cambodia and the sugar companies, with a focus on the human right to food, the human right to adequate housing, the prohibition of forced evictions and the prohibition of child labor. These rights and obligations are enshrined in treaties ratified by Cambodia and EU Member States, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. States’ obligations under these treaties are elaborated upon in soft law instruments such as the General Comments of treaty bodies, the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests. The international human rights framework sets out procedural and substantive requirements before, during and after evictions in order to uphold these human rights obligations. The assessment uses this
framework to assess the human rights impacts of evictions and land seizures associated with sugar plantation development in Cambodia that was driven by the EBA arrangement. 

The assessment finds that, in the absence of effective human rights safeguards, Cambodia’s policy of granting large-scale land concessions to private investors for agro-industrial development and the EU’s policy of granting preferential tariffs to spur such investment in least developed countries both carry risks of devastating human rights impacts. These risks materialized before, during and after the evictions that were carried out to make way for industrial sugar development in Cambodia.

In violation of international law, the evictions were not authorized by law or undertaken for the purpose of promoting the general welfare. Alternatives to eviction were not explored in consultation with potentially affected people and no impact assessments whatsoever are known to have been conducted. As a result, strategies were not developed to avoid or minimize displacement. Effective dissemination of information and meaningful consultation about compensation and resettlement options were not conducted and appropriate notice of eviction was not provided to affected people. On the contrary, some affected communities did not learn that their land had been granted to sugar companies until bulldozers turned up with the police and military. Others faced a campaign of intimidation and pressure to give up their land and accept the minimal compensation on offer.

The procedural requirements for ensuring respect for human rights while the evictions were being carried out were also flagrantly violated. The assessment found that forced evictions were carried out to clear land for sugarcane plantations in all research areas. Police and state security forces carried out arbitrary arrest and detention and used physical violence at the behest of sugar companies against local communities attempting to defend their land. One community activist was found axe murdered in Koh Kong after documenting and actively protesting the evictions. His murder was never investigated. At least two villages were totally destroyed and more than 11,500 hectares of rice fields and orchards belonging to over 2000 families was seized. Thousands more hectares of community forest and environmentally protected areas were also destroyed to make way for the sugar plantations. Many families suffered the destruction of their crops, livestock and personal possessions. 

Despite significant loss of housing, land, property and livelihood resources, compensation was generally not provided. When compensation was given, losses were undercount¬ed and undervalued, and the process was characterized by a lack of participation, threats and corruption. None of the families who were illegally evicted from their land were granted their right to return and no efforts were made to rehabilitate the displaced. 

As a result, after the evictions, affected people suffered a severe retrogression in their enjoyment of nearly all economic and social rights, including the human rights to adequate housing, food, work, education and health. Over 1000 men, women and children were left homeless and landless, while others were provided with small plots of non-arable land. In each study area, the majority of households reported increased food insecurity, deterioration of livelihoods and loss of income-earning opportunities as a result of their de-capitalization and loss of natural resources that previously provided a safety net. In some cases, the forced evictions led to extreme hunger and possibly starvation. Many of the families in the study areas, especially Oddar Meanchey, resorted to illegal migration to Thailand after they lost their land to the sugar concessions. Those who remained had no choice but to work as day laborers on the sugar plantations, where work is irregular, conditions are poor and pay is generally insufficient to enable most households to make ends meet. Interviewees unanimously stated that they preferred to farm their own land and reap the benefits of their labor for their families as they did prior to the arrival of the sugar industry. 

The human rights of women and children were disproportionately violated as a result of the evictions. Women found it more difficult to look after their children since losing their land, because they have either been forced to migrate to Thailand or work on the plantations for nine hours a day. Women whose husbands migrated to Thailand to find work reported being abandoned, while others reported
increased domestic violence following the evictions. In all areas, adverse impacts to children’s living conditions, access to education and mental and physical health were reported. Child labor on the sugar plantations was widely reported in all areas and was observed and photographed by the assessment team in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu. The assessment team confirmed 85 children, some as young as 8 years old, working on the Koh Kong sugar plantation.

While there is ample evidence of state and corporate complicity in the serious and systematic human rights violations that have surrounded the development of industrial sugarcane plantations in Cambodia, nobody has been held accountable and those affected have been denied access to an effective remedy at the local and national levels. Unable to obtain redress through Cambodian institutions,
affected communities have turned to Europe in search of accountability. However, they have found that there is no effective, independent accountability mechanism at the European Commission or anywhere within the EU structure that is available to people affected by EU policies or the activities of European companies outside of Europe’s borders. In the absence of such a mechanism, the EU’s legal and policy commitments to human rights abroad ring hollow to the people they are meant to serve.

While the European Commission has recently committed to embed impact assessments and evaluations in trade policy-making and address all significant impacts, it has apparently not extended this commitment to the EBA initiative. This report underscores the urgent need for assessment and reform of the EBA scheme. If human rights safeguards are not integrated into the trade scheme, its poverty
reduction goals will continue to be undermined and the EU will remain in violation of its international human rights obligations.

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