Sugar Exports to Europe Drop After Peak Year

Cambodia’s sugar shipments to Europe fell by 41 percent last year, according to trade data from the European Union (E.U.), a significant drop for one of the country’s most controversial exports.

Dubbed “blood sugar” by the families that have lost their homes and farms to sugarcane plantations across the country, Cambodia in 2014 shipped 38,000 metric tons of the commodity to the E.U.—its main market—worth $17.4 million.

Last year’s total is a little over half as much sugar as Cambodia exported to the E.U. in 2013, but still the second most of any year since 2009, when Europe granted duty-free access to Cambodian goods under its Everything But Arms trade scheme for least developed countries.

Italy and Bulgaria bought up most of last year’s sugar exports. The rest went to the Czech Republic, Greece, Spain and Belgium.

Though sugar makes up a small fraction of what Cambodia exports to the E.U., it has arguably been the country’s most controversial commodity.

According to rights groups, Cambodia’s sugar plantations— including a few owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat—have stolen farmland off thousands of villagers and thrown hundreds of them out of their homes, driving them into poverty and debt. Their “clean sugar campaign” urges companies and customers abroad not to buy from Cambodia.

Though the E.U. has rebuffed calls to end its trade benefits for the country’s sugar, Equitable Cambodia director Eang Vuthy, whose NGO has been helping families evicted by plantations, believes the drop in 2014 exports is thanks to the campaign.

“It’s because the sugar issue in Cambodia is well known, and buyers are more careful,” he said.

As proof, he noted U.K. sugar giant Tate & Lyle’s decision to stop buying from Cambodia a few years ago, and said an Austrian company told him last year that it would also stop importing sugar from Cambodia because of the controversy. The Cambodian government said the stigma around “blood sugar” is also why Thailand’s Mitr Phol recently gave up its three sugarcane plantations in the country.

“All of this activity has caused this,” Mr. Vuthy said, referring to the falling exports, “and it will have even more impact if companies do not do anything to find a solution for the families.”

Though the E.U. has refused to end the trade benefits, it has been in negotiations with the Commerce Ministry for over a year on a comprehensive plan that would return families to the living standards they had before the sugarcane plantations took over their land.

Mr. Vuthy said a pair of experts the E.U. hired earlier this year to help with the plan have visited most of the disputed areas and finished their study, which will now be used to draw up the rules for compensation.

The E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia, Jean-Francois Cautain, said Tuesday that he expected the government to finalize the rules in a matter of weeks.

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