The “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement of the European Union was once meant as a gesture of assistance. It eliminated the custom duties on all products imported from the world’s 48 poorest countries, arms excepted. Cambodian sugar has undoubtedly benefited from the programme:  since 2006 the exports in this sector have substantially increased. Yet, territorial conflicts linked to the expansion of sugar-plantations have too.

“When the sun comes up I am full of hope. I love the farm and the rivers. But I am sad because this land that my parents looked after for so long has now been stolen. Who on earth tells me that it is not theirs, ours, anymore?”

The story of this middle-aged woman in the documentary TERRES illustrates the practical meaning of privatization. Since the Cambodian government adopted a law on landed property in 2001, which allowed the state to reallocate land for economic concessions’, 56% of all arable land has been given to private companies. Most of these enterprises transform the acquired hectares into huge sugar plantations and sell their products for export, that, for instance, the EU happily receives. Foreign Direct Investment has increased from nearly zero in 1990 to more than 800 million now; half of the companies having a Chinese owner.

In most cases the indigenous population is not warned beforehand so the removal of their houses comes as a surprise. With limited knowledge of human rights and legal procedures, there is little they can do against it. The ADHOC association, the Cambodian organization for the development and defence of human rights, provides legal advice, but often without success. The state’s economic interests are huge compared to the small losses of a handful farmers. Their cabins can be rebuilt elsewhere, their animals can move with them, their children can be raised a few kilometres away. Sometimes they are given a small compensation, sometimes not.

Between the lines of EU and Cambodian law there is a much broader discussion going on. What do written rules made in far-away offices actually tell about human property? Who decides that laws are binding, except for the rule of law itself? These are questions whose answers are often assumed to be self-evident, but in the concrete examples of privatization they are not. “Who on earth tells me that it is not my land anymore?”

Or, as the Inter Press Agency quotes: “Land is life; land is dignity.”

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