How can the Bonsucro standard be improved to prevent and resolve land conflicts for communities

By Frank Mechielsen

This week a large group of sugar producers and buyers, large food companies, traders and NGOs are gathered in New Orleans to exchange views and experiences related to sustainable sugar production. Oxfam will participate to provide recommendations to improve the Bonsucro production standard related to land issues. With the Sugar Rush report[1] Oxfam has highlighted the importance of land rights and how one crop – sugar- has driven large scale land acquisitions and land conflicts at the expense of local communities.

Five weeks ago, Oxfam and its supporters called on Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Foods, 3 of the largest players in the sugar industry, to lead the way in stopping land grabs. Both Coca Cola and PepsiCo are Bonsucro members.

Oxfam welcomes the fact that, through Bonsucro, a considerable number of producers, buyers and other stakeholders have committed to make the sector more sustainable. The development of sector-specific norms, dialogue and joint learning, as well as mechanisms to keep members accountable are important elements to improve the practices of  individual businesses and in the sector as a whole.

At the same time, Oxfam is convinced such initiatives cannot and should not substitute for binding international regulation, and strong and well implemented law and public policy in countries where production takes place. Further, membership of - and even certification by -such an initiative does not absolve any company of its own individual responsibility to address issues of sustainability. Bonsucro certification does not, in itself, provide any guarantee of responsible behaviour on a company’s part.

Oxfam provided  feedback on the Bonsucro standard revision earlier in 2013, focusing on land issues. The Bonsucro criteria recognize land access/ownership for marginalized communities as established by the ILO Convention on Indigenous & Tribal People (1989) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Bonsucro also requires documented evidence that affected communities have given their free, prior, and informed consent for land use and have received proper compensation. However for the standard to be suitable to avoid and deal properly with land conflicts, it can be improved upon.

We have the following recommendations to improve the standard to provide more guidance for those facing land issues on how to best prevent and address them. 

  1. For the prevention of land conflicts the standard should, at a minimum, include a provision for producer companies to provide adequate information to relevant stakeholders on environmental, social and legal issues relevant to the Bonsucro criteria. This should take place in appropriate languages and forms to allow for effective participation in decision making.
  2. In the opinion of Oxfam, most land conflicts can be avoided by following the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). The principle should apply to all affected local communities. Guidance should be more specific as to what the different stakeholders are required to do to put FPIC into practice. Land use rights should be determined through community mapping and should include a high level of transparency in terms of documentation. The revised 2013 RSPO standard can be used as a model[2].
  3. For the resolution of land conflicts, the standard should 1) support mapping of the disputed area in a participatory way with involvement of all affected parties (including neighbouring communities where applicable); and 2) specifically prohibit the use of mercenaries and paramilitaries in sugarcane operations. Company policy should prohibit extra-judicial intimidation and harassment by contracted security forces; and expressly prohibit all forms of armed intervention, whether by company or state actors, including private security guards. Finally, the standard should 3) ensure an accessible and effective dispute resolution and grievance mechanism to enable affected communities to seek redress for injustices suffered. Grievance mechanism should be accessible to affected communities in their language.
  4. The standard should make reference to the UN Principles on Businesses and Human Rights and require companies to have, at a minimum, a human rights policy. It should specifically address the rights of women and their rights to land tenure. In addition, the standard should require specific, documented and targeted consultation and participation of affected women.
  5. The upstream and downstream impacts of the operations on the food security of (neighbouring) communities should be part of the Environmental Social Impact Analysis (ESIA). In cases where negative impact mitigating measures are to be undertaken, they should include (though not be limited to)  compensation, provision of alternative land of equal if not better quality, and restoration of livelihoods.
  6. The standard does refer to biofuels, but ought to make specific reference to the impact of sugarcane to biofuels on local, regional and national food security as a result of (indirect) land use changes. The RSB standard criteria 6a and 6b can be taken as a model for this[3].

Oxfam believes that to improve impact, Bonsucro needs to look beyond its standard. Although outside the scope of the review, the effectiveness of mechanisms Bonsucro currently has in place for dispute resolution and handling grievances need to be reviewed, since they have generated controversy in recent years[4].

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