EU Trade Preferences in the Agricultural Sector and Land Grabbing in Cambodia

Since 2009, the European Union (EU), under its “Everything but Arms” trade initiative, has granted Cambodia, one of the 48 least developed nations in the world, the right to export sugar duty-free to the Community. In that same year, exports to the EU from the country comprised predominantly of small-scale farmers, reached a value of 751 million Euros, three-quarters of which were based on the “Everything but Arms” initiative. Expectations that the removal of trade barriers in the sugar sector could contribute to poverty reduction in rural Cambodia were thus high. 

The opposite, however, was the case. In anticipation of the complete lifting of trade barriers, Thai sugar companies and other foreign investors began to secure land concessions for large areas to cultivate sugar cane. The acquisition of land followed a proven method: Influential Cambodian businessmen with close ties to the government, including a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, procure access to land for their foreign partners through a network of companies founded just for this purpose. For the investors, it was an attractive business since the leases, which last for up to 99 years, were quickly and discreetly completed, without cumbersome tendering processes or any social sustainability reports, which are actually required by law. Through excellent connections to their Cambodian business partners, the sugar companies enjoyed access to state security authorities, who expelled the residing families, sometimes with brutal methods, from their farmland. The always-compliant judiciary did the rest to give land-grabbing a legal façade. This includes the systematic arrest and conviction of land activists on fabricated criminal charges to frighten the affected population.

In recent years, through these illegal methods, more than 80,000 hectares of valuable farmland have been transferred to foreign sugar companies such as Mitr Phol and KSL. Around 12,000 people, who are dependent upon access to farmland, were in some cases deprived of their existence overnight. In June 2010, the first shipment of 10,000 tons of sugar produced on the expropriated fields was exported to the EU.

Already in May 2009, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) had pointed out serious human rights violations in the Cambodian land sector. The Committee stressed that the authorities were actively involved in land-grabbing and criticized “the prevailing culture of violence, especially against people who were fighting for land rights for their fellow men.” In a series of reports since 2009, further United Nations bodies have underlined the concerns of the Committee. Thus in 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Cambodia condemned the “high human costs in the allocation of land concessions.” 

In a resolution on 26 October 2012, the European Parliament, referencing available reports, also took a clear position. Emphasizing the critical human rights situation in Cambodia, the European Parliament called upon the Commission, among others, to investigate the escalation of human rights abuses in connection to the granting of land concessions for the export of agricultural products to the EU. This included the request to temporarily suspend trade preferences granted under the “Everything but Arms” initiative for the affected agricultural products if human rights violations were confirmed.

For months already, a coalition of national and international NGOs has been calling for a fundamental investigation of the EU trade preferences in the Cambodian sugar sector and has directly appealed to the EU Trade Commissioner, Karel de Gucht. The NGOs involved have provided extensive documents on the aforementioned human rights violations. The representatives of the group emphasize that they are not criticizing the trade preferences in general. In an ideal situation, the trade preferences can be a great benefit to the population. They ask, however, that the Commission, in view of the clear warnings from the United Nations and the EU, initiate a human rights investigation in the agricultural sector.

In July 2012, the Thai Human Rights Commission began investigations against one of the involved sugar companies, since there was also evidence in Thailand of fundamental human rights violations against hundreds of Cambodian families in the allocation of land concessions. The Cambodian families affected and the NGOs involved continue to hope that the EU Commission follows this example and finally negotiates.