Worried about land grabs, group presses 3 corporations to disclose sugar purchases

Published online: Oct 06, 2013
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HONG KONG-Oxfam accused three big international food companies on Tuesday of buying sugar from what the advocacy group described as plantations that had unfairly taken land from farmers in Cambodia and Brazil without proper compensation.

Oxfam, a group of 17 similarly named organizations around the world, called on the food companies to disclose more about the sources of their sugar supplies. It contended in a report that sugar, soybeans and palm oil were the three crops producing the fiercest competition for land by large, often foreign, investors.

Sugar is producing the biggest disruption of these three in rural areas of developing countries, Oxfam said. The group's report assailed three companies by name: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Foods. Coca-Cola said that it asked suppliers "to recognize and safeguard the rights of communities and traditional peoples to maintain access to land and natural resources."

Amanda Rosseter, a company spokeswoman, said Coca-Cola does not buy sugar directly from farms but from larger suppliers. These purchases have included buying from Tate & Lyle Sugars, which in turn has bought limited quantities from Cambodia, but Tate & Lyle Sugars has already said that it has no further plans to buy from Cambodia, she added.

PepsiCo said in a statement that it also paid attention to social responsibility issues in its contracting. The company added that it had "reached out to the suppliers; they have assured us they are in compliance with applicable laws. We continue to engage with our partners to further understand how they are addressing the issues raised by Oxfam."

Associated British Foods, based in London, said that its sugar operations were in Africa and that it had no connection to what are said to be land grabs in Cambodia or Brazil. The company said that it had not been willing to sign up for a pledge of responsible land ownership offered by Oxfam because the company believed that it already had responsible policies and because Africa had a long history of failed pledges.

Many economists have long criticized the international sugar trade from a different perspective, saying that protectionism in affluent countries has unfairly limited sugar imports from poor countries. This has tended to drive up prices for consumers in affluent countries while suppressing the earnings of some of the world's poorest nations.

Chris Jochnick, the director of the private sector team at Oxfam America, said that the group favored full access to global markets for poor people around the world. The group wants multinational companies to disclose fully where they buy their sugar and whether it is grown with respect for the land rights of indigenous peoples and other small-scale landholders.

"The whole supply chain is completely opaque," Mr. Jochnick said. "We can't get any information unless we have people go into the field."

The Tate & Lyle Sugars unit of the American Sugar Refining Company, which is a big supplier to soft drink companies and other food businesses all over the world, said on Saturday that it had purchased only two small shipments from Cambodia in recent years, in May 2011 and June 2012, and had no plans for further purchases.

Mr. Jochnick said that the scale of purchases was not at issue. Any sugar from Cambodia, because politically connected companies were given large tracts of land by the government, is, he said, "symptomatic of much broader land problems in the sugar industry."

Source: www.nytimes.com