Farmers Claim Losses in British Businessman’s Biofuel Case

Six years ago, about 300 farmers in Banteay Meanchey province were hired to lay the groundwork for a 3,000 hectare jatropha plantation—part of British businessman Gregg Fryett’s plan to establish a multimillion-dollar biofuel industry.

But after only 20 hectares of jatropha trees were planted, work ground to a halt, Mr. Fryett’s legal woes escalated and his project fell apart.

Phreab Pher, head of one of the co-ops that contracted the farmers, appeared alongside representatives of three other co-ops at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday as the final plaintiffs in a monthslong trial of Mr. Fryett and three co-defendants, who have been imprisoned for more than three years.

Farmers stopped work in 2012, Mr. Pher said, around the time that Mr. Fryett’s U.K.-based firm Sustainable Agro Energy (SAE) came under investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office. The farmers are seeking to recover their losses after a season of lost harvest on land that was cleared but never planted.

Mr. Pher, director of the Khmer Angkor People Community for Development co-op, which was contracted by International Green Energy (IGE), the local subsidiary of SAE, said the farmers reverted to growing vegetables after 10 months of stalled progress.

“If we had delayed longer, the people would lose more,” he said. “We told people to grow corn, beans and cassava, and asked them not to wait because IGE did not pay the money.”

A contract between the co-op and IGE states that farmers would receive 50 percent of payment to cover the cost of clearing the land and establishing a nursery and 50 percent after planting the trees. However, Mr. Pher said farmers never received the initial payment and spent their own money to do the work.

During questioning by Mr Pher’s lawyer, Sao Noeun, Mr. Fryett rejected the claims.

“Let’s be clear on what he’s been paid for,” Mr. Fryett said outside court. “We will accept they’ve done 20 hectares, but where is the other 2,980?”

“They’re claiming $2.5 million for work they haven’t done, for which they haven’t been authorized, for which they haven’t been told they can move ahead with, so at what point are we liable for that?”

Sok Sam Oeun, a lawyer for Mr. Fryett’s co-defendant, Cambodian-American Um Sam Ang, questioned his client about the initial payments made to the co-ops. Mr. Sam Ang said payments had been made for services rendered.

“The company will pay based on the real amount of land people prepare,” he said. “Some communities stopped working themselves. We did not stop them.”

Infighting within the co-ops was also preventing payments that had been made from reaching farmers, Mr. Sam Ang told the court.  

“In the case of SREDO, they have a complicated problem,” he said, referring to a company contracted by IGE to hire farmers. “The director filed a complaint against the deputy, the deputy filed a complaint against the director and the finance unit also filed a complaint,” he said.

Representatives of the co-ops will face questioning next week.

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