A U.K. firm being sued by 200 Cambodian farmers over the loss of their land to two sugar plantations has defended its business dealings, claiming that the affected families were dealt with legally and were properly compensated for the loss of their properties.
Local farmers and human rights groups accuse two sugar plantations—both majority owned by Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar, a subsidiary of the KSL Group—of forcing some 400 families in Koh Kong province off their farms or out of their homes since 2006, some of them violently.
Two-hundred of the families filed a suit against Britain’s Tate & Lyle company, which buys sugar from the Cambodian plantations, at the High Court of Justice in London last month, holding the U.K. firm complicit in their evictions, and demanding millions in damages.
In an email responding to the lawsuit, Jonathan Hawker, a spokesman for Tate & Lyle, an iconic British firm best known for its golden syrup tins, said the firm had vetted its Thai partner carefully before purchasing its Cambodian sourced sugar.
“Tate & Lyle Sugars has undertaken a comprehensive due diligence process involving a full independent audit to ensure that our supplier has complied fully with legal, ethical and sustainability standards,” Mr. Hawker said of the plantations in Koh Kong.
That vetting, he said, included the firm’s own assessment and hiring Cert ID—which specializes in the food industry—for third-party certification of KSL’s operations.
Mr. Hawker said Cert ID came back with a positive report from Koh Kong, concluding that KSL acquired its stake in the combined 20,000 hectares “legitimately.”
And while part of the land on which the plantations are now established had been occupied by local villagers, Mr. Hawker added, quoting from Cert ID’s report, “these occupants were given compensation and resettled by the Cambodian Government prior to the concessions being granted.”
Mr. Hawker, however, declined to share a copy of the Cert ID report.
He said only nine of the families—now in negotiations with KSL and the government—had yet to be compensated for their losses, and that the 3,850 mostly seasonal jobs at the sugar plantations and refinery were relatively well paid.
“Remuneration is substantially higher than the recognized minimum wage, and good accommodation is provided for workers,” Mr. Hawker said.
He said KSL had also helped to build a local school and roads, renovate a neighborhood pagoda and was selling seeds and fertilizer at reduced prices to locals.
Despite his glowing endorsement of the plantations and the evictions, Mr. Hawker said Tate & Lyle was still prepared to break off its deal with KSL.
“The company has made it clear to KSL that, in the event that evidence is forthcoming of any wrongdoing by our supplier, we would terminate our contract immediately,” he said.
Both the U.N. human rights agency and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission say they have that evidence.
In a 2007 report, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the Cambodian government granted the two sugar plantations without consulting the affected families then living on the land, a clear—and common—violation of the country’s law on such land concessions.
In July, Thailand’s human rights commission also came out with a preliminary report on its investigation of KSL’s Koh Kong plantations. The commission said KSL was responsible for breaches of the farmers’ “right to life and self-determination.”
On top of that comes the lawsuit the families have just filed with the U.K.’s High Court, which claims that the 200 families have enough paperwork to prove they still legally own the land and that Tate & Lyle, by profiting off that land, owes them compensation for their loss.
An Haya, who lost 12 hectares to the plantations and is a representative of the families in the suit, said he did not know of a single family that was resettled at the company’s or the government’s expense.
As for compensation, he said that in 2007, the families were offered only a total of between 100,000 riel and 200,000 riel each, or about $25 to $50, for their land, not nearly enough to make up for what they were losing. He said most of the families in the suit had turned the paltry cash offer down.
“The company [the plantation owners] didn’t pay compensation based on the size of the land,” Mr. Haya said. “Even if a family had more than 10 hectares, they received the same amount as others.”
Only in the past few months, as international pressure has mounted, have a few of the evicted families been offered, and accepted, payouts of $2,000 to $3,000.
Mr. Haya also said the only new roads in the area he has seen were built by the sugar company for its own use on its own property.
And as for the vaunted, well-paid jobs available at the two plantations, Yin Chev, who lost 11 hectares of his land to the plantations, said he gave it a try but soon quit because the pay—120 riel, or about $0.03, per bundle of cut and bound sugarcane—was not worth the back-breaking work.
“People are not happy working for the company, but they have no choice. They just work to make money to feed their families,” he said.
Tate & Lyle will soon have to decide whether it will file a formal defense with the U.K.’s High Court or challenge its jurisdiction in hearing a case from Cambodia.