Duty-Free Sugar Exports to EU Hit $13 Million

The European Union (E.U.) last year continued to import millions of dollars worth of duty-free sugar from Cambodian plantations that have forced hundreds of families off their land despite calls from European lawmakers for the trade benefits to end, according to the latest E.U. data.

Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar, which holds a majority share in two plantations in Koh Kong province, signed a five-year deal with U.K. firm Tate & Lyle for all its Cambodian and Lao sugar in 2009.

Through Tate & Lyle, the Thai firm has been exporting the sugar to the U.K. duty free since 2010 thanks to the E.U.’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for developing countries.

According to new E.U. trade data released Tuesday, 15.5 million kg of the Cambodian sugar—worth nearly 10 million euro, or about $13 million—made it to the E.U. in 2012.

Details on the sugar’s final destination within the E.U. were not immediately available. But the 10 million kg of Cambodian sugar imported by the E.U. in 2010, and the 22.5 million kg imported in 2011, all went to the U.K. as part of Khon Kaen’s deal with Tate & Lyle.

Though imports have decreased since 2011, pressure is still mounting from the affected families, rights groups and the European Parliament for the E.U. to drop the duty-free access to sugar.

Hundreds of families say the two plantations, totaling 20,000 hectares spread across Sre Ambel and Botum Sakor districts, started forcing them off their farms or out of their homes in 2007.

The Community Legal Edu­cation Center (CLEC), a legal aid NGO helping the families, puts the total number of affected villagers at nearly 2,900.

About 220 of the families sued the owners in 2007 to get their land back, or at least win fair compensation, but the case has since stalled.

With the help of CLEC and a few other NGOs, the families launched an online campaign urging shoppers to boycott the so-called “blood sugar” in July and called for an end to the EBA trade benefits.

On the back of their complaints, the European Parliament passed a resolution in October asking E.U. Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht to launch an investigation into all such government-issued land concessions in Cambodia and likewise end the trade benefits if it corroborated the claims of abuse.

Thirteen of the lawmakers re­peated the call last month after no investigation had been carried out.

A spokesperson for Mr. de Gucht said Tuesday that his office was still considering the request.

In 2012, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission launched its own investigation into Khon Kaen, the Koh Kong sugar plantations’ Thai owners, and backed up the families.

In a preliminary report, the commission said that it found the company re­sponsible for “breaches to the right to life and self-determination.”

A final report from the commission is still pending.

Though a few of the families have dropped out of the court case in recent months in exchange for $2,000 to $3,000 payouts from Senator and business tycoon Ly Yong Phat, who used to own a minority stake in the two plantations, most have held firm.

“We demand that the company give back our land and give us compensation,” said An Haya, who lost his rice paddy to the plantations. “The company has to pay the villagers because the company destroyed our crops. It should also pay for the time we have not been able to use our land.”

Thanakorn Borintarachat, the general manager of one of the two plantations, Koh Kong Sugar, declined to comment.

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