Coca-Cola’s recent commitment to “zero tolerance for land grabbing” breaks new ground for change within the broader food and beverage industry, particularly because Coke’s new policy will be backed up by concrete directives to operationalize this throughout its supply chain. Coke promises to “use our influence on the final outcome of these [land] disputes,” and has promised to engage with suppliers Tate & Lyle, Bunge, and Usina Trapiche regarding the specific land disputes in Cambodia and Brazil highlighted in Oxfam’s Sugar Rush report.
Sounds good. But what, exactly, does this mean for communities in Sre Ambel, Cambodia and Pernambuco and Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, which are at the heart of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign?
A continuing demand for justice in Cambodia
Two hundred families in Cambodia’s Sre Ambel district continue to fight for land from which they were evicted in 2006 to make way for a huge sugar plantation. Without formal title to their land — a reality for poor farmers in many developing countries — Sre Ambel’s villagers face an uphill battle to secure a just solution that provides the means to support their families.
As Sok Phoeurn, a widow from the Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong province, told us “I feel so sad, but I am still struggling to fight to get my land back. Even though I have no money and struggle with my daily needs, I try my best to get my land back.”
Ultimately solutions in Sre Ambel will be driven by community leaders like Sok Phoeurn, by Khon Kaen Sugar Industry (the company most directly involved), and by the Cambodian government. Oxfam has, and will continue to, suppport the ongoing effort of local partners, allies, legal experts, and others to seek a just resolution in Sre Ambel.
Where Coke can use its influence: Following last week’s announcement, Khon Kaen Sugar Industry (KSL) offered to meet with representatives of community members in Koh Kong to discuss resolution of their claims. Coke can support this effort by pressing Tate & Lyle to revisit the audit conducted in Cambodia and question whether it asked and answered the right questions regarding KSL. It can urge the Cambodian government to address the communities demands and advance full implemention the UN Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure. It can assert proactive leadership in standard setting fora like Bonsucro to improve standards across the sugar sector. And having now disclosed that Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol is one of Coke’s top three suppliers, it should take a look at that company’s human rights record in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region where similar problems are reported.
Still struggling to reclaim land in Brazil
Mato Grosso do Sul is home to the Guarani-Kiaowa, an indigenous people that once thrived in this once thickly forested state. Machinery and agribusiness dominate the landscape now, following decades of conflict. Standing at the center of this conflict sits the Monteverde Sugar Mill, owned by the multinational agribusiness giant, Bunge. Despite international attention to the plight of the Guarani-Kiaowa, Bunge has, to date, shown no inclination to stop purchasing sugar from plantations operating on Guarani-Kiaowa land until its contracts end.
“They should stop doing this…They have damaged our lives enough. They should respect us because we’re on an indigenous reserve but they don’t,” Edilza Duarte told us in July. “We need to recover our land to plant…That’s why we need equality and freedom.”
Where Coke can use its influence: Coke purchases sugar in Brazil (although not from this particular mill) and as Bunge’s customer, Coke can exhort Bunge to do the right thing in Mato Grosso do Sul. It can raise the issue through Bonsucro, where both Coke and Bunge have commitments to sustainable sugarcane, by pressing for adherence to Free Prior and Informed Consent principles even in non-certified mills. Most importantly, Coke must now make clear its future “zero tolerance” expectation for all suppliers, including Bunge. Coke can also right now leverage its “sphere of influence” to urge the Brazilian government to finally complete the long-pending demarcations and reach resolution with growers who operate on indigenous lands.
Some glimmers of hope in Brazil?
In 2002, 53 families who had been living on 17 islands in the Sirinhaém estuary in Brazil’s Pernambuco state since 1914 were violently evicted by sugar giant Usina Trapiche. Despite their continuing, courageous struggle, they have yet to return. Meanwhile Oxfam’s investigation has shown that Trapiche’s sugar ends up directly in Coke and Pepsi products.
Despite the extended nature of this dispute, glimmers of hope are finally emerging. Last month the Brazilian State prosecutor overseeing the State of Pernambuco, Silvia Regina, announced that the Federal Public Ministry will launch an investigation to assess delays since 2009 in the creation of an Extractive Reserve (RESEX) on the land that would enable the local community to return to the mangroves where they fished and grew food to earn a living and feed their families. Trapiche has been using its considerable political influence in Brazil to prevent the establishment of a RESEX for years. The State Prosecutor’s hearing is the result of the long struggle by local groups and community members as well as increased attention on the case in recent weeks resulting from Oxfam’s report.
Where Coke can use its influence: As a customer of Trapiche (via its bottlers), Coke can use its leverage to directly support the displaced fishing communities in Pernambuco and their efforts to see a RESEX established. The solution to these situations is not for Coke to “cut and run” by breaking its contracts, but instead to use its power with Trapiche and Brazilian authorities to ensure a just resolution. Coke should pay close attention to the State Prosecutor’s efforts and how this plays out with the Office of the President. By making its expectations abundantly clear to Usina Trapiche, the local and federal governments, and its own bottlers, we fully believe that Coke can make a difference in bringing a permanent solution for the fishing communities of Sirinhaém.
The struggle for land rights continues
The struggle for justice in Sre Ambel, Mato Grosso do Sul, Permambuco—and countless other places where communities been forced off their land to make way for sugar, palm and soy—will continue. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. But the demands of people like Sok Pheourn, Edilza Durate, and Silvia Regina are clear.
Policy commitments by Coke or other food and beverage company leaders won’t, by themselves, automatically change longstanding problems that exist in their supply chains – including the specific disputes highlighted in Oxfam’s campaign. That, too, will take time. But it will be actions, not words, that are the final measure of Coke’s commitments.