If you overdid it a bit on sweet treats over the festive period, you might have decided to go easy on them for a while. But campaigners in Cambodia are calling for more decisive action as land grabbing for industrial sugarcane plantations has been robbing communities of their land, homes and livelihoods.
Two million hectares - 12 per cent of the country’s landmass – have now been granted to private companies for industrial agriculture, with sugarcane one of the leading crops. At least 75,000 hectares of land have granted to private companies for industrial sugarcane production, with over 12,000 people estimated to have been affected by human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by the companies involved.
Sugarcane plantations have displaced people in Kompong Speu province, Cambodia (© Equitable Cambodia)
When the companies involved have arrived, local people’s homes and harvests have been burned down. The majority of people affected have land-based livelihoods, so the loss of land has pushed families into poverty, leaving them unable to afford school costs or hospital births for their children. The land that has been lost was highly productive, supporting grazing, arable crops and fruit and nut trees.
But the changes have also caused other problems. Intensive pesticide use on the plantations has polluted local water sources, killing off fish. People now have to travel much further to collect firewood because the plantations block their access, and many products that communities used to be able to get from the forests are now unobtainable. And where the evictions have been resisted, people have been intimidated with some ending up in jail.
“This sugar comes from land violations, blood of cattle and villagers who were shot,” said Teng Kao, a leader from the displaced Koh Kong community in the south-west of the country.
While the companies involved to date have been Asian firms, in 2009 British multinational Tate and Lyle signed a five-year contract with KSL, one of the main companies involved in the land-grabbing, to purchase all of its output from Cambodia. The first shipment left for the EU in June 2010. While Tate and Lyle’s retail sugar carries the Fairtrade mark, much of the rest of its sugar, sold to other companies for use in their products, is about as far from fairly traded as it is possible to get – as a video produced by the campaigners vividly illustrates.
Unfortunately, the Cambodian sugar plantations are also being fuelled by the EU’s trade policy. Europe’s ‘Everything but Arms’ (EBA) provisions are intended to benefit the world’s poorest countries by enabling them to export their products to the EU without import duties or quotas and, in the case of sugar, at a guaranteed minimum price.
However, because there is little restriction on foreign ‘investment’ (including in the form of land-grabbing) in many of these countries, and because the EBA policy encourages exports, it is encouraging the rapid expansion of industrial sugarcane and other plantations, decimating livelihoods and undermining food sovereignty. As a result, the Cambodian campaigners are demanding that the European Commission investigate the abuses occurring under its EBA scheme and revoke the benefits from companies involved in human rights abuses.
Cambodian campaigners are also calling for a boycott of Tate and Lyle sugars – including the iconic Lyle’s golden syrup – until the company stops buying from the destructive Cambodian suppliers and provides just compensation to the affected communities. So there’s never been a better time to swap sugar for solidarity.