Why is Coca-Cola championing land rights at the UN?

May 16, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I usually try and minimize Oxfam’s excessive tendency for trumpet-blowing, but this one from Oxfam America’s private sector czar, Chris Jochnick (@cjochnick), looks Chris Jochnickworth it – some real progress in working on land rights with the epitome of consumer capitalism

This week at the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), Coca Cola publicly declared that “land grabs” are unacceptable and urged governments to strengthen land rights.  That’s a big turn for the world’s largest brand – until very recently, Coca-Cola was in denial about land conflicts. The company’s quick evolution is emblematic of a sea change on land rights in the food and beverage industry over the last few months.  That’s a major boost for land rights champions and good news for corporate campaigners.  Here’s why.

A little more than a year ago, Oxfam launched Behind the Brands (BtB) – a public campaign targeting the ten largest food and beverage companies around a range of supply chain issues.  Among those issues, land rights have been of particular concern to Oxfam (see prior reports here and here).  So called “land grabbing” from small farmers and communities is a major threat across the developing world, where much land has yet to be formally titled (in Sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of land has yet to be registered) and can be easily seized to make way for foreign investors and industrial export crops like soy, palm oil and sugar.   The ten companies targeted by Behind the Brands were oblivious to the issue – 7 of them (including Coca Cola) got the worst score on our public scorecard for not even mentioning land in any public documents, let alone doing anything substantive about land conflicts.

A few months into BtB, Oxfam focused more attention on land, launching a report that tied Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Associated British Foods to land conflicts linked to sugar.  We made three “asks” of the companies – (1) “know and show” impacts on land (by disclosing suppliers and undertaking/publishing impact studies on land conflicts in the supply chain); (2) commit to “zero tolerance for land grabbing” and putting a clause on land rights and Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) into all supplier codes and (3) be a public advocate for land rights at global, national and industry fora.

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We spent much time with land experts, NGO advocates and company insiders in developing those asks – and were told that most of it was a reach, but we’d never get a major MNC to use the term “land grabs” let alone declare “zero tolerance”.   Going into the push, a senior Coca-Cola exec told me we were barking up the wrong tree – Coca-Cola did auditing all around the world and never came across land conflicts.  Fresh off our prior very successful BtB push on gender (targeting Nestle, Mars and Mondelez), we were undeterred.

Alongside the land report, Oxfam put pressure on the three companies through public demonstrations, social media and outreach to consumers and investors.  We had conversations with the CEOs and kept in close touch with our company counterparts.  In a mere six weeks, Coca-Cola met our “asks”, declaring “zero tolerance for land grabs”  and forcing all of its suppliers to abide by a far-reaching definition of FPIC (covering not just indigenous people, but all affected communities).  This was no small step.  Coca Cola has a presence in 200 countries, it is the largest purchaser of sugar in the world, and it has some of the most robust auditing protocols in the business.

Pepsi followed shortly thereafter, similarly committing to “zero tolerance for land grabbing”.  Today, one year after launching BtB, 8 of the 10 targeted companies have committed to FPIC (Mondelez and Danone still lagging).  That is truly remarkable.  By way of comparison, advocacy organizations like Oxfam have been pushing the oil and mining industries for over a decade to adopt FPIC policies, and uptake – while finally starting — is still very soft.

Of course, people will say that talk is cheap – any company can “make a commitment”; but in this case, there are reasons to believe.  First, Coke and Pepsi agreements with Oxfam came with immediate disclosure of their top sugar suppliers.  This opened the door on incredibly opaque supply chains and overnight created national news and government action in Cambodia and Brazil, where communities have been fighting land grabs by local sugar mills – now explicitly connected to Coca Cola and Pepsi and their zero tolerance commitment.

Second, getting commitments from Coke and Pepsi has set a ball rolling, influencing the other companies, and more importantly, the major producers and traders who hold even greater influence over conditions on farms.  In the wake of the food and beverage company commitments, Cargill stated last month at a World Bank event that it also respected FPIC.  Another major producer told Oxfam that they would now be forced to adopt FPIC too because of Coke’s pressure.

Third, corporate public advocacy represents a critical, largely untapped, vehicle to raise awareness and legitimize strong standards.  This week at the behind the brandsUN CFS meeting, we are already seeing the fruits of company commitments to champion land rights.  Global brands like Coke and Pepsi have influence via their marketing, political relationships, business networks that goes far beyond their respective supply chains.  However uncomfortable, we need these “strange bedfellows” as we push for stronger laws and oversight at the global and national levels (some thoughts on how Oxfam manages these tricky relations here).

One final reason for optimism – our power is only growing.  The pressure that Oxfam, as part of a wider movement of consumers, institutional investors, students, NGO allies, community groups, was able to muster to move these companies is on the rise.   This civil society influence is abetted by social media innovations, more connected north-south movements and a more forward-looking generation of business insiders.  We may well be back on the street fighting Coke tomorrow, but today we should enjoy seeing the world’s most powerful brand put to good work.