Keo Chhorn still remembers the day, in 2006, that the workers arrived to raze his farm. “The first I knew that there was a problem was when I heard bulldozers clearing our land,” he recalls. “The villagers gathered together and tried to stop the bulldozers, but we didn’t succeed.”
Up until then, Keo, his wife, and their six children farmed a seven-acre plot less than a mile away from their home in the Sre Ambel district of southwestern Cambodia. They grew watermelon, rice, and cashews. “I was very happy … and never had to worry that we didn’t have enough food to eat,” said Keo.
Then two shell companies – both owned by the Thai sugar giant Khon Kaen Sugar Co Ltd (KSL) – pushed Keo’s and 455 other families off their farmland, without any consultation or consent, to make way for a 44,000-acre sugar plantation.
Seven years later, Keo, now 63, struggles to earn a living. “It’s very hard to find work to support the family, to feed them, and to send my children to school,” said Keo. “Before, we’d eat three times a day, but now it is just twice a day.” During harvest season, he said, he and two of his sons, age 9 and 12, work on the sugar plantation, cutting sugarcane for less than $2 a day.
When sugar isn’t sweet
What happened to Keo’s family is not unique: The World Bank has found that the main link among countries with the most large-scale land deals is the poor protection of rural land rights. Cambodia has the world’s highest number of large-scale land acquisitions in recent years, with 104 major land deals since 2000.
Globally, although these land deals are often being struck to grow food, the crops grown on the land rarely feed nearby communities. Instead, the land is used to grow profitable crops, often for export.
Some of these deals are also what’s known as “land grabs”: land deals that happen without the free, prior, and informed consent of communities and that often result in farmers being forced from their homes and families left hungry. Sugar, along with soy and palm oil, is one of the commodities most often linked to land grabs. And as the global demand for sugar intensifies, so does the rush for land to grow it.
A seven-year legal struggle
Like many rural Cambodians, Keo and his family didn’t have an official land title. However, they and others did have documented evidence showing they had lived and farmed there for years. Community members say they also invested in clearing forest from the land, making them eligible for ownership under Cambodian law.
Today, 200 families, including Keo’s, continue to fight for the return of their land. Their journey has taken them from the Cambodian Courts to the Thai International Human Rights Commission, and most recently, the UK High Court. In April 2013, they filed a case against two British sugar companies who source sugar from KSL, claiming that they have profited from illegally seized land. The communities have also sought dialogue with KSL.
For its part, KSL says that compensation has been given to 580 affected families and that only 13 cases are outstanding. The company says it has “no authority to give the land back, as we lease the land from the government” and claims that it has bought multiple benefits to the area, including jobs. The government of Cambodia states that the land concessions were granted in accordance with the law.
But Keo and others, like community leader Teng Kao, who lost 35 hectares of farmland, say they won’t give up.
“We’ve been fighting the company for seven years and still we don’t have any positive outcome. But we still keep fighting. Land is really important to us,” said Teng. “There is a Khmer saying: fish depend on water like people depend on land. The 200 families here will continue to fight. We need land to support our lives.”