Nearly a year after beverage giant Coca-Cola sent a team of researchers to Cambodia to probe alleged human rights abuses by the sugar producers that help sweeten its drinks, NGOs and the families that have lost land to those suppliers’ plantations say little to nothing has changed.
The researchers spent more than a week in late February and early March 2014 visiting families forced off their farms by plantations owned by the Thai companies that supply Coca-Cola. The visit followed the beverage firm’s high-profile pledge the year before of “zero tolerance” for land grabbing by its sugar suppliers.
As part of the pledge, Coca-Cola said it was launching a global, yearslong audit of its supply chain starting with its main sources, including Thailand’s Mitr Phol, which has stakes in three plantations in Oddar Meanchey province. Oxfam, the international advocacy group that helped spur Coca-Cola into action, says the soda maker also sources from the U.K.’s Tate & Lyle, which has sourced sugar from another Thai firm with plantations in Koh Kong province.
The Cambodian plantations, including a pair the researchers visited in Kompong Speu province owned by ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat, stand accused of stealing homes and farms from thousands of poor families in return for paltry compensation—and often none at all. Some of the families, with decades-old claims to their land, say they were even shot and beaten by police or soldiers helping the companies and watched their homes being burned to the ground.
Tmin Ti, who lost his 5-hectare farm in Oddar Meanchey to one of Mitr Phol’s plantations in 2008, met with Coca-Cola’s researchers last year.
He said he had little hope the beverage giant could do much for the families even then, after local police who dogged the researchers’ every step reportedly pressured the visitors into canceling a planned community meeting with evictees. He has even less hope now.
Mr. Ti said he has heard nothing from or of Coca-Cola since the visit and that Mitr Phol has done nothing to help the families. He and another evictee even traveled to Bangkok in November to plead their case to Mitr Phol in person, but to no avail.
“We asked the company to find a solution for us, and they promised to let us know in January. But they have not gotten back to us yet,” he said.
Hauy Chhuoy, who also lost his 5-hectare farm and his home to Mitr Phol’s plantations, also said the evicted families in Oddar Meanchey had received nothing from the Thai firm since Coca-Cola’s visit.
Mr. Chhuoy said the plantation gave him no compensation when it took his land and his home years ago, forcing the 49-year-old farmer to move in with his son.
“I am very sad because the authorities have not found justice for us after we lost all our land,” he said.
After conducting its own research last year, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in August corroborated reports that Mitr Phol’s plantations had taken land from the families illegally.
Yet Oxfam and Equitable Cambodia, two of the NGOs advocating on behalf of the evictees, have been unable to detect any concrete improvements for the families since Coca-Cola’s visit.
According to Oxfam, the researchers said during their visit that a report on their findings would be coming out later that year. That hasn’t happened, either.
Chris Eijkemans, Oxfam country director, said this week that as the world’s largest sugar buyer, Coca-Cola has “immense power” to influence its suppliers and the industry as a whole.
“Oxfam and partners are working to ensure that Coke follows through on its commitments to engage suppliers on alleged land rights violations and to seek corrective action where necessary,” he said.
Coca-Cola said it will not be publishing the findings of its 2014 visit to Cambodia but may release additional research in the coming years.
“The research [in Cambodia] was not a social compliance audit, but a process that gathered facts and perspectives. Hence, the company will not publish the Cambodia research,” said Sharolyn Choy, Coca-Cola’s spokeswoman for the Pacific region.
“This research is different from the company’s commitment to conduct third-party country baseline studies in which we are reviewing land rights issues in up to 30 countries by 2020 that may be impacting the industry and its workers in the Coca-Cola system’s cane sugar supply chain. The company will publish summaries of these studies upon completion,” she said.
Ms. Choy said Coca-Cola had not terminated any of its contracts with its Thai suppliers and that talks with them were ongoing.
Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia’s executive director, said his NGO has provided Coca-Cola with regular updates on the evictees since the company’s visit a year ago and was encouraged by reports from the Oddar Meanchey provincial government two months ago that at least one of the plantations had its land concession canceled.
But he said Mitr Phol has so far refused to confirm the news. And even if the concession is canceled, it will remain to be seen whether the families who were kicked off the land will get any of it back.
“I’m sure they [Coca-Cola] have been working hard with the suppliers…but specifically what they’re doing I’m not sure,” Mr. Vuthy said. “Progress is slow, as we see. But at least now, if not a result, at least we see some progress.”
Yoeun Buntha, who heads Oddar Meanchey’s agriculture department, said the plantations in late 2014 agreed to give back some land to the state but had yet to do so.
Mitr Phol did not reply to a request for comment, but has previously denied any wrongdoing.
In comments it sent in 2012 to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, a U.K.-based non-profit organization, Mitr Phol said it did not support encroachment on private land or the destruction of private property. It said it had followed all applicable laws in acquiring the land in Oddar Meanchey and that unspecified “authorized officials” had consulted with local communities in advance, a claim the communities have consistently denied.