ILO, EU in Talks on Study of Economic Land Concessions

The International Labor Organization (ILO) is in talks with the European Union (E.U.) to start a report about Cambodia’s controversial economic land concessions, the ILO’s country director said Thursday. The move could ultimately end Cambodian sugar’s duty-free access to Europe.

“We have been in conversation with the E.U. to do such a thing in the future,” ILO Country Director Maurizio Bussi said, referring to a report on land concessions. “This is in progress.”

Cambodian plantations growing sugarcane have been accused for years of stealing land from thousands of poor farming families across the country. Much of the sugar—$53 million worth last year—enters Europe duty free. Affected families, rights groups and some European parliamentarians want these trade benefits stopped.

On a brief visit to Cambodia earlier this week, E.U. Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said those benefits were, for the moment, safe. Before the E.U. can suspend trade benefits, it has to investigate alleged abuses. And despite numerous reports on the pain that industrial-scale plantations have caused Cambodian farmers, Mr. de Gucht said the E.U. lacked its standard trigger for an investigation: a negative report from the ILO.

“If we have to launch an investigation we will do it, but we are of the opinion at present that this is not the case with respect to sugarcane,” the trade commissioner said on Tuesday.

On Thursday, however, Mr. Bussi said the ILO and E.U. are discussing the possibility of an ILO report on Cambodia’s land concessions and that necessary research could start by the end of the year, “maybe even sooner.”

“We are hoping to do this work,” he said.

If and when the ILO and E.U. decided to proceed, a final report would be months away.

“To do a solid piece of research… to be solid and methodologically sound, it takes a good amount of time,” Mr. Bussi said.

As an example, he said a recent ILO report looking into labor abuses in Thailand’s off-shore fishing industry, notorious for putting migrants laborers to work in slave-like conditions, took six months.

E.U. investigations are rare, and can last up to a year.

The E.U. has launched investigation in only four countries since 1997: Burma, Belarus, El Salvador and most recently Sri Lanka. All these investigations lead to suspensions of trade benefits, according to a 2012 report on the prospects of an E.U. investigation of Cambodia by Aprodev, a Belgium-based Christian NGO.

The E.U. declined to comment for the story.

Equitable Cambodia director Eang Vuthy, whose NGO has lobbied hard for farmers losing land to sugar plantations, said Mr. de Gucht’s claim that an ILO report had to trigger an investigation was an excuse. He said the E.U. already has all the evidence it needs. He noted a 2012 report on Cambodia’s agri-business land concessions by the U.N.’s human rights envoy to the country, Surya Subedi.

In the report, Mr. Subedi concluded that the human rights violations stemming from the concessions were “serious and widespread.”

“I don’t think they [the ILO and E.U.] need to do it. The U.N. human rights envoy has already done it. He conducted research on [concessions] and he did a very detailed report,” Mr. Vuthy said.

His own NGO has studied the issue as well, he said, “and we found the same issues. So why do they have to redo it? I think they are just biding their time and delaying the process.”

E.U. Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain is currently in talks with the Cambodian government hoping to convince it to come up with a final, comprehensive solution for the thousands of families who have lost land to sugarcane plantations. After three meetings they have yet to agree on how many families should be included, however, and have suggested that an outside expert will be brought on to help.

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