The soft drinks manufacturing multi-national bowed to pressure after hundreds of thousands of people appended their signatures to a campaign by Oxfam demanding that Coca-Cola cut links with companies supplying it with sugar from cane grown on grabbed lands
“The Coca-Cola Company commits to zero tolerance for land grabbing,” Coca-Cola said in a statement last week, the company promising to stop all business dealings with subsidiaries that are involved in land grabs, where land is taken from poor people in developing countries without their consent.
The move comes after 250,000 people had signed a petition in connection with international NGO Oxfam’s campaign for food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola to respect the land rights of local communities, and Oxfam had “found evidence of land grabs and disputes by companies that supply sugar for Coca-Cola” – the world’s largest buyer of sugar.
Coca-Cola further promised to “protect the land rights of farmers and communities in the world’s top sugarcane-producing regions, advancing its ongoing efforts to drive transparency and accountability across its global supply chain,” in a statement published on their website last week, also promising “a commitment to sustainably source … sugar cane” by 2020.
A very necessary move, since the harvesting of sugar cane is “the most hazardous” of all forms of agricultural work, according to Human Rights Watch, and since sugar “has been driving large-scale land acquisitions and land conflicts at the expense of small-scale food producers and their families,” according to a recently published report from Oxfam.
According to Communications Director for Coca-Cola Nordic, Mikael Bonde Nielsen, these promises of protection of rights and sustainability also apply to Swaziland. “Our expectations of our suppliers are the same no matter where they operate. This also applies to Swaziland,” he tells Africa Contact.
Coca-Cola has a huge concentrate-manufacturing plant in Swaziland that supplies the growing African market for Coca-Cola. A subsidiary of Coca-Cola, Conco, buys Swazi sugar for the production of Coca-Cola concentrate, a major export for Swaziland that makes up as much as 40 per cent of Swaziland’s GDP.
In Swaziland, the problem of land grabbing is exacerbated by the fact that Swaziland’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, controls all publically owned land, and that his chiefs do his bidding in ejecting people from the land they live on and cultivate if they disobey him or them in any way.
So it is urgent that Coca-Cola acts on their promises. For instance that they investigate and reveal how the land on which the sugar for the products that are produced in Swaziland has been acquired, and how the sugar production on this land effects the subsistence farmers who live nearby.
The problem is that the issues of land usage and the effects of the sugar production of Coca-Cola’s suppliers cannot be separated from the autocratic political system in Swaziland.
But Mikael Bonde Nielsen says that Coca-Cola is not about to change their approach in regard to the political situation in the countries in which they operate. “Coca-Cola does not interfere in to the political affairs of sovereign states.”
Indeed, Coca-Cola is on good terms with Swaziland’s absolute monarch King Mswati III, with whom Coca-Cola’ says they have a “solid relationship” that they sincerely appreciate.
The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights stipulates that businesses have responsibilities across their entire supply chain. “Business enterprises should respect human rights … [the principles exist"> independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfill their own human rights obligations … The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises … seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”
* Peter Kenworthy works with Africa Contact.
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