The European Union (E.U.) says the Cambodian government has agreed to the first part of a comprehensive plan they have been wrangling over for more than a year to properly compensate thousands of families that have lost land to sugarcane plantations.
The plantations have razed the homes or stolen the farms of thousands of families across the country, all while exporting their sugar to Europe duty-free under a preferential trade scheme the E.U. extends to poor countries. Though the E.U. has refused multiple requests from evictees and NGOs to end its benefits for Cambodian sugar, it has been trying to convince the Cambodian government to set up a system to fairly compensate affected families since early last year.
This week, the E.U. said the government had agreed to the first part of the plan, to be used to assess the claims of those who believe they are owed compensation, or more than what they have already received.
“The first phase, which aims at identifying the eligible claimants, has been agreed upon,” it said in an email. “The second phase, on compensation mechanisms, is being discussed.”
The E.U. ignored a request for details on what, exactly, was agreed to.
To negotiate the deal, the government has put together an ad hoc, inter-ministerial committee headed by the Ministry of Commerce. Kem Sithan, the Commerce Ministry secretary of state chairing the committee, did not reply to a request for comment. Ministry spokesman Ken Ratha said he knew nothing about the talks.
Neither side has said what sort of compensation successful applicants might be in line for. Evictees most often want their old land back, something the government has typically been loath to give them. Evictees who do take compensation—almost always under duress—end up with cash or a plot of land elsewhere, though rarely enough to make up for their losses. Many are driven into debt.
The E.U.’s hope is that families compensated under the plan it eventually works out with the government will be restored to the living standards they had before they were evicted—or better.
However, Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, an NGO that has advocated for the rights of many of the families likely to apply for compensation, said a final deal was most likely far off.
“We hope the E.U. and the government come to a solution soon, because the people have been suffering for a very long time,” he said.
The E.U. imported $17.4 million worth of sugar from Cambodia in 2014, less than the year before, but the second-highest amount since it extended duty-free benefits to the country in 2009.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)