Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Wednesday lauded the country’s controversial sugar industry and the jobs it has created, saying that companies operating in the sector need to be defended against the widespread criticism they have been receiving.
Rights groups and the opposition CNRP have undertaken a campaign in recent years to spotlight abuses in the sugar industry, particularly on plantations belonging to Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar company. Land grabbing, child labor, the destruction of natural resources and ruination of farmers’ lives are among the complaints against Mr. Yong Phat’s company and other firms in the industry.
The sugar produced on Mr. Yong Phat’s plantations, most of which are in Kompong Speu province, has been dubbed “blood sugar.” Mr. Sam Al said Wednesday the term was hurting the industry.
“I have met with some embassy officials who refer to sugar cane as a blood sugar plant,” Mr. Sam Al said Wednesday during a speech at a Phnom Penh hotel, in which he reflected upon his first year as environment minister.
“For me, this is the destruction of one industry. People in the Aural mountains usually go to cut trees in the dry season, but for me, when there are sugar plants, I am happy, because the sugar industry finds people jobs with sugar farms and factories,” he added.
“If this industry is destroyed, how will thousands of people find jobs?”
He said that instead of making it a political issue—calls for an end to the non-tariffed trade of sugar have been backed by some European Union parliamentarians—it would be better to resolve the issue through discussion.
But Phal Vannak, a 27-year-old representative from the Omlaing community in Kompong Speu province, which is embroiled in a land dispute with Mr. Yong Phat’s company, was dismissive of Mr. Sam Al’s comments.
“We cannot entirely accept what the minister said,” he said.
“We know this factory has provided some jobs to the workers, but the point is that this industry has evicted the people, and the government should do more to assist them.”
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