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Cambodians see nothing sweet in EU sugar accord

KOH KONG, Cambodia -- An EU scheme to boost trade with developing nations is fueling land grabs in Cambodia, activists say, with thousands evicted from their property to make way for a booming sugar industry.

Campaigners are taking their fight to European supermarkets, encouraging a boycott of Cambodian sugar, which they claim is often grown on land snatched illegally from rural farmers.

Yi Chhav said she had no choice but to return to her family plantation to work for the sugarcane grower that took her land, toiling for about US$1.50 a day in the sea of swaying emerald green plants that swallowed her rice paddies.

“If we say there's no way we'll go to work in the sugarcane plantation then what will we have to eat? There's no work,” the 68-year-old widow told AFP at her modest home in southwestern Koh Kong province.

“How can we survive?” she said, adding that the irregular work makes her feel like a “slave” and her low income has forced her to pull her teenage daughter out of school.

Europe's “Everything But Arms” initiative is meant to help the world's least developed nations by lifting import quotas and duties.

But activists say it has sparked a voracious appetite for land in Cambodia's sugar industry, leaving more than 3,000 dispossessed families without fair compensation, while enriching well-connected investors.

Rights groups say the government has ignored residents' legitimate land claims by granting tens of thousands of hectares to local and foreign-owned sugar firms across the nation.

Land titles are a murky issue in Cambodia — the communist Khmer Rouge regime abolished property ownership during its murderous rule in the late 1970s — and disputes pitting developers and agricultural firms against villagers have sparked increasingly violent protests in the country.

Industry and government officials argue that there is compensation on offer for those affected, and that the sugar business is good for Cambodia because it creates jobs.

But activists say the compensation is inadequate. After years of seemingly futile protests, they are now urging the EU — and European consumers — to step in to combat what they term “blood” sugar.

“It is scandalous that the European Union permits this tainted sugar to be sold within its territory, but until the EU implements a ban on the import of goods produced on stolen land it is up to European consumers to say no to these products,” said David Pred, a representative from the Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign.

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