The sugar industry has been catastrophic for Cambodia's poor, so why are companies being honoured?

by David Pred, Inclusive Development International and Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 15:21 GMT

A worker chops sugar cane on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

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If Bonsucro hopes to repair its damaged reputation, it must demonstrate its independence and enforce its own ideals and standards

In October, Bonsucro, the world’s largest association promoting responsible sugar production, presented its annual sustainability award. At a banquet and cocktail reception attended by industry insiders, the association honored Thai sugar producer Mitr Phol, one of Coca-Cola’s top three global cane suppliers, for its “exemplary work.” 

What Bonsucro didn’t – couldn’t – mention is that Mitr Phol is responsible for grabbing the land and ruining the lives of thousands of impoverished Cambodians.

What Bonsucro does matters. The London-based association has standards meant to ensure that its 450 members, including global brands such as Pepsi and Nestle, do not harm people and the environment, a persistent problem in the sugar industry dating back to the slave trade. It calls itself “highly robust, transparent and democratic.” Yet in honoring Mitr Phol, Bonsucro is concealing gross human rights abuses behind a façade of ethicality.

In 2008, the Cambodian government granted Mitr Phol subsidiaries a 200-square-kilometer parcel of land to develop massive cane plantations in the country’s northwest. Yet more than 2,000 families already lived there, eking out a living farming rice and gathering food and medicine from the forest.  They made it clear they didn’t want to leave.

No matter: police and private security forces descended on the area in stages, slashing the forests, forcibly evicting residents, bulldozing houses, torching rice fields, and beating and arresting villagers. Landless and unable to make a living, the evicted families have descended deeper into poverty.

Following an investigation conducted last year, the Thai National Human Rights Commission found Mitr Phol directly responsible for the forced evictions and associated human rights violations. The land grabs led to the “collapse of the community,” commissioner Niran Phitakwatchara said at a press conference. Rarely, if ever, has a national human rights commission issued such a strong condemnation of a private company.  In its final report, the Commission called upon Mitr Phol to "correct and remedy the impacts."

Sugar is big business in Cambodia. Under the Everything But Arms initiative, product grown in the country can be shipped duty-free to the EU, where it ends up in soft drinks, sweets and other goods. Tate & Lyle and Coca-Cola are just some of the brands that have benefited from cheap sugar sourced from Cambodia.

Yet the growth of the industry has been catastrophic for the country’s poor. More than 15,000 people have been forcibly evicted to make way for plantations. These evictees have no hope of pursuing justice in the Cambodian courts, which are corrupt and beholden to the elite, or by appealing to government leaders, many of whom enrich themselves through such land deals.

Bonsucro and other ethical trade associations are meant to fill that accountability gap. In countries with weak institutions like Cambodia, these organizations are supposed to ensure that their members act in a socially and environmentally responsible way. At a minimum, they are bound to obey the law and respect human rights and labor standards.

When members do breach codes of conduct, it is incumbent upon these trade associations to take action. They must ensure that their members publicly admit their faults and work with affected communities to repair the damage they have caused. 

In 2011, a number of families evicted by Mitr Phol filed a complaint with Bonsucro’s grievance mechanism, demanding compensation for their losses. This presented an important test of the association’s credibility. Would it hold a member to account for flagrant violations of its own code of conduct?

Sadly, the answer appears to be no. Rather than responding to the complaint, Mitr Phol withdrew from Bonsucro in 2012. Then, last year, Bonsucro quietly reinstated the sugar producer as a member. Bonsucro now claims that the complaint has expired and that the case is closed. In other words, Mitr Phol has managed to evade responsibility to the people it harmed due to a bureaucratic statute of limitations.

 Yet there’s no statute of limitations on the suffering endured by the evicted families. Hoy Mai is one such person. A 54-year-old rice farmer and mother of eight, Hoy was a resident of Bos village, where some of the most brutal evictions occurred. After watching her home and crops burn, she and her husband found themselves destitute and unable to provide for their children.

Hoy traveled to Phnom Penh in the hope of petitioning Prime Minister Hun Sen for redress, a common last resort for someone in her situation. Instead of justice, though, she received a prison sentence – perversely, for violating forestry laws. She spent eight months in a squalid prison, where she gave birth to a son. 

In truth, Hoy didn’t expect much from the Cambodian government, which is not known for its commitment to human rights. But she does expect more from Bonsucro.

“Bonsucro should insist that Mitr Phol compensate us for the houses we’ve lost and the crops that were destroyed,” she said. “They should stop delaying and act. I’m getting poorer and poorer, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

On behalf of Hoy and the other affected families, we have once again filed a complaint with Bonsucro. But given the corporate interests of the association’s members, which rely on sourcing cheap sugar from developing countries to bolster their bottom lines, the families would be forgiven for feeling pessimistic.

In a further act of cynicism, Mitr Phol has recently applied for Bonsucro certification, a level of verification more stringent – and prestigious – than mere membership. If successful, the certification would convey additional legitimacy on a company that has done so much harm.

If Bonsucro hopes to repair its damaged reputation, it must demonstrate its independence and enforce its own ideals and standards. The association should immediately compel Mitr Phol to compensate Hoy and the other Cambodians whose lives it destroyed. That would send the right message: Bonsucro is finally beginning to get serious about ethical sugar production, and it is not in the business of scrubbing the blood and suffering from sugar grown on stolen land.