The Coca-Cola Company on Thursday confirmed that it has sent a team to Cambodia to assess long-running allegations of land grabbing and forced evictions at the sugar cane plantations that help sweeten the global drinks giant’s sodas.
The team’s visit follows the company’s pledge in November of “zero tolerance” for land grabbing by its sugar suppliers and the launch of a social, environmental and human rights assessment of its key suppliers around the world, including Thailand, home to Mitr Phol. The Thai sugar firm owns several plantations in Cambodia accused of stealing land from hundreds of local farmers.
“The team will meet with key stakeholders, including NGOs, to hear first-hand concerns of allegations of human rights violations, particularly with regard to land conflicts in the cane sugar industry,” Sharolyn Choy, Coca-Cola’s spokeswoman for the Pacific region, said Thursday.
“We have already begun to communicate with our suppliers on our commitments to ensure practices are in line with our expectations,” Ms. Choy added.
She declined to answer any other questions about the team at work in Cambodia.
Oxfam’s country director in Cambodia, Chris Eijkemans, met the team of two Coca-Cola representatives and three representatives from Arche Advisors, the U.S. auditing firm helping with the assessment.
The fact that Coca-Cola has sent a team to audit its suppliers in Cambodia was a good sign and a powerful symbol for other firms buying Cambodian sugar, Mr. Eijkemans said.
“They are taking their commitment very seriously, and I think they have to,” he said. “You cannot announce a zero tolerance policy and do nothing.”
He said the team was collecting information for a report that would come out later this year.
Oxfam singled out Coca-Cola and nine other global brands for not doing enough to ensure that they were sourcing their sugar ethically in a report the NGO put out in October, and made a case study of Koh Kong plantations supplying British firm Tate & Lyle via Thailand.
Tate & Lyle has denied any wrongdoing and is now defending itself in a U.K. court against 200 Koh Kong families who accuse the plantations of stealing their land and hold the British firm partly responsible.
In Oddar Meanchey province, villager Tmin Ti said he was expecting a visit from the auditing team sometime today.
Mr. Ti says he lost five hectares of rice paddy fields to one of three sugarcane plantations in the province owned by Mitr Phol. Local NGOs say employees of the plantations told them that Senator Ly Yong Phat also owns a stake in the farms, though representatives for the senator deny it.
Mr. Ti said he was happy to have Coca-Cola see the situation for itself.
“I think it’s a good thing that they come to visit with the villagers who are affected,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)