Pepsi pressured to fight Big Sugar's 'land grab'

Tractors sit on a sugarcane plantation occupying the  land of a Guarani-kaiowá indigenous community in Brazil.

Tatiana Cardeal/Courtesy Oxfam

Tractors sit on a sugarcane plantation occupying the land of a Guarani-kaiowá indigenous community in Brazil.

The anti-poverty group Oxfam is asking Pepsi's shareholders to approve a resolution that, if passed, would force the company to disclose its sugar suppliers and investigate whether those suppliers are implicated in "land grabs" that unfairly take land from the poor.

Pepsi's arch-rival has already announced its own anti-land grab initiative. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola announced a new initiative "to use our influence to help protect the land rights of local communities." The company revealed its top three sugar suppliers and promised to launch an independent review of its operations in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Philippines, Thailand and South Africa.

It's a major success for a campaign that Oxfam launched earlier this year called "Behind the Brands." The campaign attempts to embarrass, cajole and threaten the world's biggest food companies into protecting the environment and treating workers or local communities more fairly.

Oxfam has taken particular aim at the sugar industry, with a report on land disputes involving large-scale sugar producers in Brazil and Cambodia. In these cases, impoverished local communities blame large sugar producers for forcing them from their traditional lands.

There have been many reports of such "land grabs" in recent years, as rising food prices have increased investor interest in land around the world. The problem is especially acute in places where people don't have clear legal rights to the land that they depend on for their livelihoods, including many countries in Africa.

According to Oxfam, the three agricultural crops most often implicated in land grabs are sugar, soybeans and palm oil. Of the three, sugar production accounts for the most land — 75 million acres, an area the size of Italy.

In the U.S., Pepsi and Coke don't rely heavily on sugar, since corn-derived sweeteners are cheaper. But in the rest of the world, sugar remains the sweetener of choice.

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