A member of the European Parliament is in Cambodia investigating agri-business firms accused of evicting hundreds of families while benefiting from a free-trade scheme with Europe worth millions of dollars, according to the NGO Equitable Cambodia.
The visit from France’s Patrice Tirolien follows a resolution the European Parliament passed on January 16 urging the European Commission to act on a 2013 report by local NGOs detailing evictions and land grabs by sugar plantations profiting from duty-free export to Europe under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Exports to Europe through the EBA are credited with helping create thousands of jobs in the garment sector, by far Cambodia’s most important export industry. But, human rights groups say the same deal for the sugar industry has fueled years of evictions and land grabs in rural areas, and they now want the trade benefit for Cambodian sugar suspended.
Critics of the sugar plantations, and the duty-free sugar they export to Europe, are hoping Mr. Tirolien’s visit will push the Trade Commission closer to launching a full investigation on abuses linked to land ownership.
“We believe he will use his leverage to push the [European Commission] to conduct the investigation,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia.
“With his visit, we believe it will put a lot more pressure on the European Commission to act.”
In Koh Kong province, 200 families that have lost land to a sugar plantation are suing U.K. food giant Tate & Lyle over the sugar it has imported from their land through a Thai intermediary.
Companies behind the evictions say they have compensated affected families fairly and abided by all relevant laws.
Despite several requests by both local NGOs and European lawmakers for a probe of Cambodia’s commercial plantations, European Union Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht in May said the situation in Cambodia—while of concern—was not yet serious enough to trigger an official investigation that could lead to sanctions.
Mr. Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia said Mr. Tirolien visited with families displaced by sugar plantations in the provinces of Oddar Meanchey and Kompong Speu. He also met with CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, who owns most of the plantations, the E.U. delegation to Cambodia and members of the political opposition. Requests by Mr. Tirolien to the Ministry of Agriculture for a meeting went ignored.
Tmin Ti, who lost five hectares of rice paddy to Mr. Yong Phat’s Angkor Sugar plantation in Oddar Meanchey, said he was encouraged by Mr. Tirolien’s visit to the community on Tuesday.
“I and the other villagers are hopeful about the European Parliament when we heard his promise to help us,” Mr. Ti said.
“He promised the villagers that he will take this issue to discuss with other members in Europe and that he will warn the companies involved in violating people’s rights and evicting villagers from their land.”
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)