Declaring that it has "zero tolerance" towards land grabbing, Coca-Cola has agreed to investigate a long-running case in Cambodia where villagers are seeking court action against a company accused of seizing their land to make way for plantations linked to the supply of sugar to the soft drinks manufacturer.
"The Coca-Cola company believes that land grabbing is unacceptable," the Atlanta, Georgia-based giant said in a landmark statement in which it agreed to review the status of its sugar suppliers to ensure that it does not buy from plantations that illegally evicted local residents.
"Our company does not typically purchase ingredients directly from farms, nor are we owners of sugar farms or plantations, but as a major buyer of sugar, we acknowledge our responsibility to take action and to use our influence to help protect the land rights of local communities," Coca-Cola said late Thursday.
The move came a month after global human rights group Oxfam and its supporters kicked off a campaign calling on Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Associated British Foods, three of the largest players in the sugar industry, to “commit” to zero tolerance for land grabs.
In the campaign, Oxfam cited, among others, a seven-year-old land grab case in Cambodia.
Some 200 families in Sre Ambel district in the Koh Khong province have been fighting for land from which they were evicted in 2006 to make way for a sugar plantation supplying Tate & Lyle Sugars, which sells sugar to franchises that manufacture and bottle products for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
The plantation is controlled by companies which are 70-percent owned by Thai sugar giant Khon Kaen Sugar Co Ltd (KSL).
In April 2013, the families filed a case against Tate & Lyle Sugars in the UK High Court and through the grievance mechanism of Bonsucro, an industry initiative that aims to reduce the negative impacts of sugar production.
Coca-Cola said it would engage with its all its suppliers and growers to pursue "fair resolution" of any disputes in their supply chains.
In the Cambodian case, Coca-Cola has committed to engage with Tate & Lyle Sugars and to “take action and use our influence on the final outcome" of the dispute.
"This is the kind of engagement we are looking for to ensure communities in the specific land conflicts in Cambodia ... are treated fairly," Oxfam said.
"Oxfam is not asking Coca-Cola to break contracts with the implicated suppliers but instead to use their immense power to be part of resolving land disputes across their supply chains."
The Cambodian government said it welcomed Coca-Cola's investigations into the case.
“This is the company’s right," Cambodian cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said. "When they conduct the investigation, they will find out whether the dispute has been resolved or [whether the] complaint is only raised by those who are opposing the government," he said.
He said that such probes would not affect Cambodia’s international reputation.
Cambodia has come under criticism from rights groups for allowing a high number of large-scale land acquisitions in recent years amid charges that some of them were secret, corrupt deals.
In the Koh Khong dispute, at first nearly 500 families from three villages lost land in the clearing operations for the sugar plantation in Cambodia, according to the community’s legal representatives at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).
Community members protested against the clearance, 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 and have had their movements curtailed. While some families have accepted compensation, some 1,365 hectares (3,372 acres) of land are still disputed by 200 families.
Amid the conflict, families ousted from the land are struggling to survive without their former income from farming rice, fruit, corn, and cashew nuts, Oxfam said. They also claim that livestock straying onto plantation land have been shot or confiscated.
Representatives of the plantation claim that they had paid compensation and insist that the company pays the Cambodian government U.S. $20,000 per year.
KSL met the community in March 2013, saying it would return the disputed land, but since the meeting, according to Oxfam, there has been no indication that the company has pursued discussions with the Cambodian government to resolve the situation.
The government says that the "economic land concessions" were granted to KSL in accordance with the legal framework and that only 13 families have not been compensated due to their inability to provide documentation or legal papers to prove they owned the land.
Tate & Lyle Sugars, owned by global giant American Sugar Holdings, says that it has no existing contract with KSL, though it acknowledges that it previously received two shipments from the company in May 2011 and June 2012. It maintains that KSL acquired its stake in the land legitimately.
Mark Moorstein, a lawyer representing the villagers of Koh Khong province, insists that the investigations into the case haven't been thorough.
"Our review of this [case] shows that there were irregularities from start to finish and had never been examined and, at least with regard to the Koh Khong transactions, there is much left to be reviewed," he told RFA's Khmer Service.
"I think what Coca-Cola has done has been excellent. This is a very, very good example of good corporate governance."
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.