An EU scheme to boost trade with developing nations is fuelling 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 $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.
The coalition of rights groups and representatives from affected communities this week launched a campaign urging shoppers to put pressure on Tate and Lyle Sugars to stop buying from Cambodian suppliers.
Their website -- www.boycottbloodsugar.net -- includes a video showing distressed villagers watching as rural buildings go up in flames.
The British-based firm, once part of the Tate and Lyle group but now owned by the US company American Sugar Refining, failed to respond to repeated requests from AFP for comment.
The EU's ambassador to Cambodia, Jean-Francois Cautain, told AFP the European Union was looking into the concerns.
"The government has already given us some documents and we are in the process of studying them and then we'll have an important discussion," he said, welcoming Phnom Penh's recent announcement that it would review all land concessions following a spike in conflicts this year.
Government spokesman Ek Tha said authorities were "on the right track" in addressing land disputes, but referred specific questions about grievances in the sugar industry to the companies running the operations.
Koh Kong, one of three sugar-growing provinces, has the country's oldest and most active plantation, exporting around 20,000 tonnes of sugar to the EU in 2011 -- double the figure from 2010 -- according to local rights groups such as Equitable Cambodia and Licadho.
Ruling party senator and Cambodian business heavyweight Ly Yong Phat, who has sold his stake in the Koh Kong operation but still has ties to other sugar plantations, told AFP there was little companies could do besides offering compensation because concessions were legally granted by the government.
"If it were my land, I would share with them, then the problem is over. But it's the state's land. So what can I do?" he told AFP.
Frustrated by the battle, some affected families in Koh Kong recently accepted a hiked cash settlement, from around 10,000 riel ($250) to $2,000, said community leader Teng Kao.
But most are still holding out for a deal that makes up for the loss of their livelihoods.
"We can't live without our land. Every day we ask for our land back so that we can grow rice and crops like before," he said.