Hundreds of Cambodian farmers are suing the British sugar firm Tate & Lyle in one of the U.K.’s highest courts over a pair of plantations in Koh Kong province they accuse of violently forcing them off their land and out of their homes.
The British law firm Jones Day, which has offices in dozens of cities across the world, filed the case on behalf of the 200 families with the U.K.’s High Court of Justice on March 28, claiming Tate & Lyle owes them for the sugar it has been buying from the plantation owners since 2010.
The complaint claims the families still legally own the 1,364 hectares allegedly stolen from them and deserve millions of dollars in damages from the firm because it has been buying the sugar grown there.
“Pursuant to Cambodian law, the claimants are the owners of and/or are entitled to possession of the sugar cane,” the claim states. “The defendants have wrongfully deprived the villagers of the use and possession of the sugar cane processed into the raw sugar and converted the same to their own use. Accordingly, the defendants are liable to the claimants in conversion for the value of the sugar cane.”
The dispute dates back to 2006, when the plantations started clearing the families’ rice paddies and forcing many of them out of their homes.
In 2009, Tate & Lyle signed a five-year deal with the majority owner of the plantations, Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar, and started shipping the sugar to its U.K. refineries the following year. Since then, it has imported 48 million kg of the sugar, worth more than $32 million.
“[I]n clearing the land,” the court claim says, “the villagers were subjected by the land clearance agents to significant, sustained and unconscionable abuses of their human rights.”
The complaint goes on to state that the abuses included “multiple instances of battery and criminal violence, resulting in significant injuries to seven of the villagers, with at least two villagers being shot and wounded.”
It also accuses the plantations of destroying their crops, razing homes and killing or confiscating their cows.
It even pins on them the murder of villager An In, an outspoken activist who had been documenting the land clearing. His badly beaten body was found on the side of a local road in 2007.
The claim says Tate & Lyle knew—or should have known—that the families still legally owned the land and had been abused. A local NGO helping the families, the Community Legal Education Center, sent the firm a detailed report of the abuses as far back as mid-2010.
The claim does not say how much the families want in damages. But it puts the value of the sugar grown every year on the land grabbed from them at nearly $2.3 million.
The families are suing both Tate & Lyle PLC and Tate & Lyle Sugars, now a subsidiary of American Sugar Holdings, the largest sugar refiner in the world.
Tate & Lyle PLC did not reply to a request for comment. A receptionist at Tate & Lyle Sugar could not find anyone available to take questions.
The firms have until the middle of the month to either decide to file a defense or to challenge the court’s jurisdiction.
An Haya, one of the plaintiffs, is also the nephew of An In, the murdered activist.
“He used to be an outspoken activist and he was good at taking pictures. He took a lot of photos of the land clearing by the sugar plantations,” he said.
Mr. Haya said his uncle’s body was found one day on the side of Road 48 with several gashes to the head.
“We don’t know if he was murdered by the sugar company,” he said. “But his killing was a sign to intimidate the activists and the families.”
The families say they want more than damages out of their U.K. court claim. By targeting the firm buying the plantations’ sugar, they hope to pressure the Thai owners to give them their land back.
“We are not suing the British firm to get money and get rich,” said Kong Song, another of the plaintiffs. “We appeal to the British firm, from a developed country, to understand that the sugar they have bought from the Thai company was planted with our tears.
“We want back our farmland that has been taken by the sugar plantations so we can farm. We hope this British law firm can help us get our land back.”
The U.K. lawsuit is but the latest pressure put on the plantation owners and the firms doing business with them.
In July, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission put out a preliminary report on its investigation of Khon Kaen, the Thai owners, saying it was responsible for breaches to the families’ “right to life and self-determination.”
The European Parliament passed a resolution in October that asked its trade commission to investigate the claims of abuse and suspend the duty-free access the sugar currently enjoys to the U.K. if the claims were substantiated.
The following month, NGOs helped the families file a complaint against American Sugar in Washington with the U.S. National Contact Point, a government office that handles disputes with multinational firms based in the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.