“They burned everything…including the rice. They didn’t allow us to harvest first. They said they wanted to grow sugarcane. They destroyed our houses so they could grow sugarcane.” (Widow, Oddar Meanchey province (1)).
On January 24, 2008, three sugarcane plantation concessions totaling 19,700ha were granted in Oddar Meanchey province under Cambodia’s ELC framework (2) to Angkor Sugar Company, Tonle Sugar Cane Company and Cane and Sugar Valley Company; all subsidiaries of Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation (1). 4,500ha of these ELCs overlapped with villager land from 33 villages (1) and the Angkor sugar concession almost entirely overlapped with community forests (3). This land grab is part of a series of devastating land conflicts in Koh Kong, Kampong Speu and Oddar Meanchey province, related to Cambodia’s rapidly expanding sugar industry. This expansion is motivated by the EU “Everything but Arms” (EBA) agreement to support sugar trade between Cambodia and the EU, and legalized through the government’s Economic Land Concessions (ELC) scheme (2).
In Oddar Meanchey, O‘Bat Moan and Bos village have been mostly affected and were completely destroyed. Previous to the land concessions, Bos village’s farmers settled in 1998, after the land was cleared from mines. Formal land titles for residential and farming land were given to villagers and land title ceremonies were attended by officials and forestry administration staff (1). In 2006, community forests, Ratanak Sambath and Ratanank Rukha, were established, supported by the EU and comprised by 16 villages, including Bos.
Everything changed in 2008/2009, when the area was cleared and villagers forcedly evicted, without any prior consultation, impact assessment, or court order (1). In 2008, Staff from Angkor Sugar Company came to Bos village under guidance of local authorities and demolished 154 houses. Villagers were intimidated to accept compensation offers, if not they would face criminal investigation. The compensations offered however were inappropriate, offering smaller land plots than previously owned (1). In October 2009, O’Bat village was sealed by forest administration officials and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to block the entry of human rights workers and media. Around 150 police, military police, RCAF troops and private army Batallion 42, financed by ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat (1), entered the village and completely destroyed 100 houses. Some farmers were arrested and a young villager was beaten unconscious (1). Villagers were forced to fingerprint statements that they voluntarily burned their houses and had accepted the compensation; resistance was responded to with with violence (1). At least 214 families lost their homes and were resettled to inadequate areas, which, according to villagers, were potentially covered by land mines. Dispossessed people from other villages received only 10 to 30% of replacement land, of which parts were occupied already by other villagers. No cash compensation was offered. (1) Large human rights abuses have been documented and impacts on livelihoods were devastating (1). Evictions occurred just before harvest, leaving all evicted families without food or income. Resettlement areas lacked shelter and appropriate infrastructure such as adequate access roads, making education and health-care difficult to access. Common property resources such as forests were degraded. Farmers lost their most important livelihood assets – land – and many were forced to illegally migrate to Thailand in the search for other opportunities (1).
Investigations and support was repressed by local authorities. In March 2013, auditors from the Coca Cola Company, of which Mitr Phol has been the third biggest sugar supplier, were only allowed to visit the area under police escorts, for which reasons investigations could not be properly undertaken. In September/October 2014, staff from NGO Equitable Cambodia (EC) and investigators, who visited villagers to process a formal complaint against the companies, was intimidated by the police and detained overnight in the local police station. Interviews with villagers were stopped and EC was told they were not allowed to meet villagers without a formal permission from local authorities, which is obviously not supported by Cambodian law (4;5).
Nowadays, the conflict goes on. Villagers have lost their livelihoods and haven’t received justice so far.