Sugar Firm Files Defense in Cambodian Lawsuit

British sugar firm Tate & Lyle has denied knowing of the alleged abuses at two Cambodian plantations accused of illegally driving hundreds of families off their farms and says that the families have no right to ask the company for compensation, according to the firm’s official defense filed last week with the U.K.’s High Court of Justice.

Two hundred of those families, some of whom say they were shot and beaten when the plantation owners started evicting them in 2006, are suing Tate & Lyle for millions of dollars in compensation. In their claim, they say the land in Koh Kong province still belongs to them and that Tate & Lyle owes them some of the roughly $32 million worth of sugar it has since bought off that land and shipped home.

In Tate & Lyle’s defense, which was filed by lawyers in London on Thursday, the firm denies that “Tate & Lyle (wrongfully or otherwise) deprived the villagers…of the ownership, use and/or possession; (1) of any of the sugar cane grown on the land; or (2) of any of the raw sugar processed from it.”

The families, in their suit, argue that the plantations were granted illegally because they were never consulted, as required under Cambodian law.

But Tate & Lyle, in its defense, refuses to admit that the families owned the land or that they ever lived or farmed there. It even refuses to admit that any of the sugar grown on the disputed 1,364 hectares since exports started in 2010—through a deal it made with the Thai majority owners of the plantations—ever made it to the U.K.

And even if the families did own the land, Tate & Lyle argues, they gave up any right to compensation because they never paid the Thai plantation owners for the work they put into growing the sugar and because the act of processing the sugar cane had turned it into a different “species.”

“Once that process had taken place,” the firm argues, “(1) the sugar cane was changed into a different species; (2) the sugar cane no longer existed (and the title to the same had been extinguished); (3) through specification [the Thai plantation owners] became the owners of the raw sugar.”

Throughout its defense, Tate & Lyle also claims that it was not aware of the alleged abuses “at any relevant time.” Though it admits to receiving a report in 2010 from the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)—a Cambodian NGO helping the families—listing the alleged abuses, it does “not admit the accuracy of any of the matters stated” in it.

Eang Vuthy, a representative for Equitable Cambodia, another local NGO helping the families, said Tate & Lyle should have been well aware of the alleged abuses even before the CLEC report.

“It’s not just a report from the NGO, but many reports from the U.N., and its very clear that there were abuses on these concessions,” he said.

The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report as far back as 2007 that said the government licensed the plantations without consulting the families already living on the land, a clear breach of the country’s land laws.

Tate & Lyle argues that a third-party assessment of KSL, the Thai parent company of the plantations’ owners, came back with a clean bill of health before they went into business together. But Mr. Vuthy said Tate & Lyle had refused his group’s request to release the assessment. Tate & Lyle has also declined to release a copy to this newspaper.

Mr. Vuthy also dismissed the firm’s claim that the act of turning the sugar cane into raw sugar somehow forced the families to give up any claim on the end product.

“If you grow the mango on someone’s land, the mango belongs to the landowner,” he said. “The law is very clear.”

Like him, An Haya, one of the villagers suing Tate & Lyle, said the U.K. firm could not have failed to see the well-publicized fight they have put up against the plantations.

“I don’t think that Tate did not know about the bad actions of the Thai company,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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