UK Lawsuit Against Sugar Firm Heading to Trial

A lawsuit filed by families in Koh Kong province accusing U.K. sugar giant Tate & Lyle of wrongfully profiting off land stolen from them is heading to trial after efforts to mediate a settlement fell through earlier this month, according to those involved.

Law firm Jones Day filed the suit on behalf of the 200 families at the U.K.’s High Court of Justice in March. They claim Tate & Lyle owes them millions of dollars for the sugar bought from the Thai plantation owners accused of illegally—and sometimes violently—evicting them.

Lawyers representing Tate & Lyle and the families met in London on July 5 along with a representative of the families and the NGO helping them, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), to see if they could negotiate a settlement.

But the families’ representative, An Haya, said Tuesday that Tate & Lyle was not interested in mediation.

“Tate & Lyle invited me to meet in England to negotiate over the fact that my community lost our land to a sugarcane company, but the company’s representative and its lawyer were not willing to negotiate,” he said.

“It was a long trip from Cambodia to London, but it was fruitless. Tate & Lyle’s lawyer and representative just took the floor to describe how good they were at building schools, roads and hospitals. They didn’t talk about our suffering and they didn’t ask me how I suffered.”

When Mr. Haya and his lawyer offered Tate & Lyle the chance to start negotiating, he said, the firm said nothing. Now, he said, “We will contest in court.”

“Of course doing business is about making a profit, but there also has to be a code of ethics and social responsibility for the families,” Mr. Haya said.

CLEC executive director Yeng Virak, who also attended the meeting, confirmed that the two sides could not make a deal.

“It failed,” he said. “So now we are moving ahead with the court case.”

Jones Day declined to comment citing an agreement to keep details of the mediation confidential. Tate & Lyle also declined to answer questions.

Mark Moorstein, a lawyer for U.S. law firm Rees Broome, who helped craft the legal strategy against Tate & Lyle, also confirmed that the case was now heading toward a trial. “It was a failure,” he said in an email. “[Tate & Lyle] essentially asserted that its reputation was stellar and the villagers could never afford to litigate.”

Jones Day is handling the case pro bono.

The families accuse the Thai owners of the plantation, KSL, of illegally acquiring their homes and farms beginning in 2006 and of using guards and employees to raze some of their crops and houses in the process.

KSL has ignored repeated requests for comment.

In a defense motion filed with the High Court in May, Tate & Lyle said it was unaware of the alleged abuses and that the court had no jurisdiction to adjudicate breaches of Cambodian law.

It also argued the families had no right to compensation from the firm the sugarcane grown on the disputed land had become a different “species” after it was refined and because they did not pay for any of the work that went into growing it.

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