Salt producers in Kampot province squabbled this week with a company that recently secured an exclusive contract to sell their product, resulting in a scheduled appearance before the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh today.
The battle began when salt producers early this month attempted to empty their warehouses. Instead of selling their salt at the market, they quickly were stopped in their tracks by Pheapimex—one of the country’s most powerful companies.
Claiming an exclusive right to sell the salt through the government-granted contract, Pheapimex Deputy Director Ing Ly Seang characterized the producers’ move as illegal.
The case went to Kampot provincial court, where Judge Hem Y ruled in favor of the producers, saying they should be allowed to sell their own salt.
One of the producers who brought the suit also serves as a prosecutor in the court, the judge said. But he argued this had nothing to do with his ruling. “I did it to help the people, not because I was forced to,” Hem Y said.
After the ruling, however, the governor of Kampot intervened and reversed the judge’s ruling, granting Pheapimex the right to sell the roughly 7,000 bags of salt.
“Of course we respect the ruling of the court, but we also need to respect the principle of the Pheapimex company, which has invested a lot of money in our province,” said Kampot Governor Ly Sour.
He said he was encouraged to quash the judge’s ruling when Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng, who also serves as deputy prime minister, told him the two sides should settle their differences in a Phnom Penh court.
Interior Ministry cabinet officials confirmed Wednesday that Sar Kheng sent a letter to Kampot regarding the dispute. The minister was in Sihanoukville on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment.
For the company’s part, Ing Ly Seang claimed the producers withheld salt produced last year that he clearly has rights to sell at market. Yet the producers argued the salt was excess production from this year and therefore belonged to them.
In April, the company secured a 99-year contract from the government to sell salt. The deal was pushed through by NGOs in an effort to iodize more salt after studies showed the Cambodian diet sorely lacks iodine.
NGO workers and formerly independent salt producers have since criticized the deal, saying a government’s monopoly to sell salt has merely been replaced with a private one.
The company’s founder allegedly had ties to the government in the 1980s, according to Global Witness.
Although unrelated to the salt deal, the company was criticized for its logging practices by the environmental watchdog group because it received large government concessions of land before World Bank-sponsored probes into illegal logging were complete.
The two sides are scheduled to argue their cases before the Appeals Court this morning, court officials said Wednesday.