Over 700 Cambodian families allegedly displaced in 2008 and 2009 to make way for sugar plantations have recently filed a complaint in the UK against Bonsucro, the global industry’s certification body
Villagers watching their farm house burn during alleged forced evictions in O Bat’Moan village, Kon Kriel commune, October 2009.
The families accuse Bonsucro of
failing to hold a member company, Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, accountable for
reportedly seizing their land.
According to the US-based Inclusive
Development International (IDI), the families were left “homeless and
destitute” and have endured “more than a decade of impoverishment and related
hardships” as a result of Mitr Phol’s actions. IDI and two other organisations,
Equitable Cambodia and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of
Human Rights (LICADHO), filed the complaint on behalf of the families.
The complaint, based on
allegations of breaches of the OECD Guidelines for
Multinational Enterprises, was filed with the UK National Contact Point, a
government body that handles human rights grievances against British
multinational enterprises. Bonsucro is headquartered in the UK.
IDI, which has supported the
affected families for several years, claims that
Bonsucro has “spectacularly” failed in its obligation to provide grievance
mechanisms for people harmed by its members’ activities and has instead rewarded
Mitr Phol with public recognitions of the company’s “continuous improvement” in
sustainability and human rights.
Mitr Phol is the world’s fifth largest sugar producer and, until recently, one of the top three suppliers to Coca Cola. Its customers, past and present, also include PepsiCo, Mars, Nestlé and Corbion.
Mitr Phol’s record in Cambodia
In January 2008 Mitr Phol
obtained three concessions totalling 19,700 hectares for sugarcane production
in the Samrong and Chongkal districts of Oddar Meanchey province. Only one of
the concessions was controlled by a company directly owned by Mitr Phol, but
IDI has demonstrated that
the other two companies were largely dependent on the Thai giant.
reportedly lost rice
fields, orchard and grazing land, as well as the associated crops of fruits and
vegetables that sustained their livelihoods. The O’Bat Moan village, where over
250 homes were either demolished or burned to the ground, was particularly badly
affected. Residents who opposed their loss of land and livelihood suffered
repression. At least four people were arrested, two of whom were sentenced to
two years in prison. Reports of illegal logging of old growth forest at one of
the concessions have also surfaced.
According to IDI, “the facts
indicate that Mitr Phol colluded with Cambodian authorities to breach a host of
Cambodian laws and regulations.”
In 2015, two years after a
complaint filed by local NGOs, the Thai National Human Rights Commission issued
a report that
found Mitr Phol to have been in serious breaches of its responsibility to
respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business
and Human Rights. The Commission determined that
the company had an ongoing responsibility to compensate the affected families
and provide remedies for the losses and human rights abuses suffered by local
people as a result of its activities.
In April 2018, in yet another
attempt to hold Mitr Phol accountable, the families filed a class-action lawsuit at
a Thai court. A mediation process ordered by the court has ostensibly failed
due to the company’s refusal to engage with the communities. The case is now set
to enter formal litigation.
Mitr Phol’s presence in Cambodia did not last long. In 2015 the company pulled out of the country. The International Sugar Journal has linked this decision to a 2014 Coca Cola audit of the concessions as part of its human rights commitments (in 2013 Coca Cola pledged “zero tolerance for land grabbing” and announced its intention to axe suppliers guilty of land seizures). In 2018 Coca Cola told IDI that it had stopped sourcing sugar from Mitr Phol.
The case against Bonsucro
Mitr Phol was admitted as
a Bonsucro member months after the evictions took place. In 2012, a year after
the families filed the first complaint with the industry body, the company
reportedly withdrew from Bonsucro, which paralysed the grievance process. It
was reinstated in 2015 but, according to IDI,
this did not restart the process. In late 2018, after another complaint had
been filed with the body, Bonsucro dismissed the
While Bonsucro has noted “the
findings of the Thai Human Rights Commission that human rights violations took
place in 2008 and 2009”, it has not considered it “appropriate to place any
conditions on Mitr Phol’s continued membership of Bonsucro.” The body has
further stated that the complaint did not present “cogent evidence that […]
Mitr Phol breached the terms of Bonsucro’s Code of Conduct in place at the
Bonsucro has also said that
Mitr Phol has requested the government of Cambodia to return the land to its
original owners after ceasing all operations in the country and commissioned an
independent report to understand the land concession process that took place.
In a guest blog for
the Business and Human Rights Resources Center, IDI co-founders Natalie
Bugalski and David Pred have denounced the fact that Bonsucro ignored the
families’ complaint for nearly eight years, despite “reams of evidence […] of
illegal land seizures, destruction of private property, forced evictions and
IDI argues that one of Bonsucro’s
responsibilities under the OECD Guidelines is to “use its leverage with its
members to address human rights concerns, especially serious ones that are
brought to its attention.”
Bugalski and Pred claim that
“Mitr Phol never showed any sign that it was willing to acknowledge the adverse
impacts it caused and right its wrongs.” Mitr Phol has reportedly refused to
provide compensation to the affected families.
“It’s high time for voluntary
industry standards organizations like Bonsucro to be held accountable to their
own human rights responsibilities,” say Bugalski
and Pred, who believe that while the ethical seal of approval provided by
Bonsucro benefits its members’ business interests, it should also live up to
the trust that consumers put on the label.
The Thai company has
strongly denied committing
any human rights violations in Cambodia.
Bonsucro has defended its
certification scheme as independent and credible, and argued that membership is
based on “continuous improvement” rather than expecting members to be