Driven by rising food and fuel prices and by growing consumer demand, investors have been rapidly expanding large-scale sugar operations.
In 2006, in Cambodia, land clearance began in the Sre Ambel district for a sugar plantation of 18,057 hectares. Nearly 500 families from three villages lost land in the clearing operations. Community members protested, stating they had worked the land since at least 1999 and some of them since as far back as 1979.They say that they were not consulted about the deal and that during protests, they were threatened. While some families have accepted compensation, 1,365 hectares of land are still disputed by 200 families.
In Brazil, on the coast of the impoverished north-eastern state of Pernambuco, a group of fishing families is fighting to return to their island home in the Sirinhaém River estuary. In 1998, 53 families were expelled from the mangrove they inhabited due to the encroachment of the Usina Trapiche sugar refinery. According to the islanders, Trapiche began destroying their homes and small farms and they received threats of further destruction and violence if they did not leave the islands. The company has also been fined for polluting the river and killing fish that the displaced families and other fishing communities depend on.
These examples that describe serious conflicts related to sugar are quoted in Oxfam’s latest report, Sugar Rush, published last week: they are emblematic of the types of land struggle taking place around the globe. One is from Cambodia, a country that has experienced a high number of large-scale land acquisitions in recent years. The other is from Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer.
Struggles over land are not new, but they have taken on renewed importance as pressure on land increases. Investors, driven by rising food and fuel prices and by growing consumer demand, have been rapidly expanding large-scale crop production. As a consequence, small-scale farmers are often sidelined.
In its report, Oxfam says that all over the globe, sugar – along with soy and palm oil – is driving large-scale land acquisitions and land conflicts at the expense of small-scale food producers and their families. Very often these land disputes have led to human rights violations, alienation of people’s spiritual and cultural ties to land and sometimes violence and destruction of property and crops. Oxfam calls this “development in reverse”: for communities and small-scale farmers, loss of land is disastrous for livelihoods and food security.
Sugar land conflicts with disastrous consequences
Sugar is produced on 31 million hectares of land globally; at least 4 million hectares have been acquired in 100 large-scale land deals since 2000 with sometimes disastrous human and environmental consequences. Owing to the lack of transparency around land acquisitions and the under-representation of domestic deals, however, Oxfam believes the real number is probably much higher.
Given that sugar is a key ingredient for food and beverage companies – 51 percent of sugar produced ends up in processed foods and soft drinks – and that these sugar land conflicts very often involve companies that supply the food manufacturing industry, Oxfam believes the food and beverage companies have a direct responsibility in what is happening. Hence their call on these companies to establish a zero-tolerance policy on land grabs.
More precisely, in the framework of its campaign “Behind the Brands,” Oxfam tracks 10 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies to assess their policies and commitments on issues including women, small-scale farmers, farm workers, water, land, climate change and transparency. These companies are: Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez, Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods (ABF), General Mills and Kellogg’s. The selection is based on companies with the largest overall revenues globally, as well as their position in the Forbes 2000 annual ranking.
These 10 companies all source sugar from various suppliers. They use it to produce soft drinks, confectionery, bakery goods and ice cream products. For most of the companies, their lack of transparency makes it impossible to know exactly how much sugar they actually use. According to Oxfam, Coca-Cola is the world’s largest buyer of sugar and controls 25 per cent of the global soft drinks market. PepsiCo trails just behind, controlling 18 per cent of the soft drinks market.
While these two giants are major sugar buyers, another of the ‘Big 10’ is one of the world’s biggest sugar producers: ABF. Associated British Foods produces 4.3 per cent of the global sugar supply and has the capacity to produce 5.5 million tons of sugar globally each year. Over half of ABF’s sugar comes from sugar cane, most of it produced by Illovo Sugar in six African countries: Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia. In three countries – Malawi, Mali and Zambia – Illovo Sugar has been linked in media reports to land conflicts.
Responsibility of global companies
Given their important roles in the sugar industry, Oxfam says the three companies bear particular responsibility for addressing related land conflicts. Even if the three giants may not have direct control over such conflicts, as major purchasers they are subject to international human rights norms and must hence take responsibility for addressing land issues and human rights violations in their supply chains. For ABF’s directly owned sugar operations, this responsibility is all the greater.
Instead, Oxfam writes, “Land is the issue in which the companies score the worst. None of the ‘Big 10’ has adequately addressed the major risks of land grabs or conflicts over land that may be happening in their supply chains.”
ABF, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo demonstrate little awareness of the issues or potential risks to affected communities. None of the companies has made a clear statement that land grabs will not be tolerated in its supply chains.
Nestlé is the one company showing some progress – scoring 5 out of 10 on land. Although Nestlé fails to commit to zero tolerance on land grabbing, it has adopted new sourcing guidelines to become the first of the Big 10 to fully support the “free, prior and informed consent of indigenous and local communities” in its supplier guidelines, used for the sourcing of sugar, soy, palm oil and other commodities.
Overall, however, Oxfam argues the sector is not doing enough. The charity says a zero-tolerance approach on land grabbing should acknowledge company responsibility for land rights violations involving the company or its suppliers down to the primary producer. And adherence to the principle of free, prior and informed consent requires that indigenous peoples and local communities are adequately informed about projects taking place on their land and must be given the opportunity to approve (or reject) projects before they start, and also at certain stages during project development.
In the period between 1961 and 2009, global sugar and sweetener consumption more than doubled. Looking forward, in the decade to 2020, demand for sugar is set to rise by a further 25 per cent. Not only has excessive sugar consumption long been linked to obesity and other health problems: today, sugar is also putting pressure on land and increasingly contributing to conflicts between local communities and global companies.