Housing rights trampled in Cambodia in rush for duty-free access to E.U.
BY PRAK CHAN THUL | REUTERS
PHNOM PENH — Kong Song's farmland was his family's livelihood for three decades, until bulldozers tore down his home in rural Cambodia to make way for a multimillion-dollar foreign-led business.
His family was one of 253 forcibly evicted five years ago in southern Koh Kong Province to accommodate a $90.6 million sugar project by a company lured by duty-free exports to the European Union, which were designed to help the world's poorest countries.
This is the flip side of a foreign investment boom in which the powerful cash in at the expense of what rights groups estimate is about 30,000 Cambodians forcibly pushed from their homes every year.
The evictions and so-called land grabs have angered donors, putting at stake hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid as well as a trade plan that gives Cambodian products tariff-free access to the European Union.
Mr. Kong Song is fighting back. He and his neighbors have filed a lawsuit against the Koh Kong Sugar Industry, a joint venture with Khon Kaen Sugar of Thailand and Vewong Corp. of Taiwan. But, as with most legal challenges against the business elite of Cambodia, it has gone nowhere.
''We're demanding that Cambodia's development is development for all, not the kind that makes its people shed tears,'' Mr. Kong Song said during a visit to the capital, Phnom Penh.
Neither Koh Kong Sugar nor Khon Kaen Sugar responded to interview requests.
Mr. Kong Song's story is common in Cambodia. He survived the 1975-79 ''Year Zero'' revolution by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime and rebuilt his life, cultivating a small plot of land in the countryside.
But land ownership was abolished under the brutal regime, and most legal documents were destroyed, leaving Mr. Kong Song and millions of other Cambodians without title deeds.
That puts him and others in a legal gray zone during a wave of development led by politically connected businesses and foreign companies, mostly from China, that line up to buy up disputed land to start agriculture, mining or real estate projects.
International donors and lenders like the World Bank have criticized the Cambodian government and threatened to halt loans until a solution is found. The government's response has been to cancel its annual meeting with donors, citing global economic uncertainty and saying that Western countries are ''mired in crisis.''
The trend has raised questions about whether Cambodia should be entitled to an initiative by the European Union that allows 48 of the world's poorest countries to export any products other than weapons to E.U. member countries without paying tariffs.
Foreign companies have capitalized on the deal, known as the Everything But Arms initiative, and many more are showing interest in Cambodia, including sugar, rice and rubber exporters from neighboring Thailand.
The subsequent foreign investment has created thousands of jobs, especially in garment manufacturing, which employs 300,000 of Cambodia's 13.4 million people and is among the largest revenue sources for its fledgling economy.
It has also elevated Europe as a crucial export destination. The European Union was Cambodia's second-largest export market last year, after the United States, generating about €930 million, or $1.3 billion. That was an increase of 29 percent from 2009.
The most-recent E.U. data show that the revenue generated in the first five months of this year is already double that of the whole of 2010. Rice exports are expected to swell further after doubling to 40,000 tons in 2010 from the previous year.
The Union's chargé d'affaires in Cambodia, Rafael Dochao Moreno, said that tax incentives had made the country an attractive destination for investment, and that the Union was ''seriously concerned'' about land disputes and evictions.
''Thousands of families have been expelled from their land,'' Mr. Moreno said. ''We want the government to take the necessary steps to avoid this kind of eviction, especially when they are done by force and with violence.''
He said that the Cambodian government needed to conduct proper consultations before granting economic land concessions, and that projects could have privileges withdrawn if found to have been involved in unlawful evictions.
''There are indeed provisions outlining the procedure of temporary withdrawal of certain products originating in a country benefiting from the'' agreement, Mr. Moreno said.
Such penalties could undermine Cambodia's efforts to position itself as one of the most promising frontier markets in Asia and instead highlight its struggle to tame corruption.
Alexandra Herbel, head of the French-Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, said that Western companies looking to do business in Cambodia were eager to ''invest correctly'' and that most would avoid projects associated with disputed land or evictions.
The Cambodian commerce secretary of state, Mao Thura, said steps should be taken to ensure E.U. privileges were not withdrawn, but he would not provide specifics.
''The people who benefit from the E.B.A. are a few million,'' Mr. Mao Thura said during a recent forum on the E.U. initiative. ''We're not just talking only about the garment sector. Millions of our people are farmers.'' ◼
Get the best global news and analysis direct to your device – download the IHT apps for free today!
For iPad: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/international-herald-tribune/id404757420?mt=8
For iPhone: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/international-herald-tribune/id404764212?mt=8