Opening Up Sugar Contracts in Southeast Asia: An Interview with Golda Benjamin

Image source: Pixabay (CCO Creative Commons)

By Ayesha Audu

Shifts toward commercialization of natural resources and land risk undermining the rights and interests of rural and agrarian communities. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) provides a platform to amplify the voices of such communities and human rights advocates, and to advance corporate accountability and transparency around natural resource investments. With support from an OpenLandContracts.org Mini Grant, the BHRRC analyzed sugar contracts available on OpenLandContracts.org to assess the strength of each company’s obligations regarding land rights, labor rights, and access to remedy.

The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) spoke with Golda Benjamin, Southeast Asia Researcher and Representative at BHRRC, to learn more about this work and how contracts can be used to strengthen advocacy around corporate accountability and good governance of natural resources.

CCSI: Could you briefly describe the work of BHRRC and your work in Southeast Asia specifically?

Golda Benjamin (GB): The BHRRC is an independent human rights organization working at the intersection of business and human rights issues. The work we do is threefold: we work on training, providing support in certain specific cases, and we do policy reviews. We also engage with businesses on various fronts. For example, when we get reports from the media or allied organizations on human rights violations, we write to businesses through our Company Action Platform. When they respond, we publish those responses. As a human rights organization, we are not neutral but we are fair and objective, giving both sides a platform to raise allegations and respond to them. In Southeast Asia, our work primarily involves engaging with governments and human rights bodies on a range of issues, including inclusive business, women’s economic empowerment, and climate resilience.

CCSI: The BHHRC received a Mini Grant from OpenLandContracts.org. Could you tell us about the project that grant was used for?

GB: The grant supported BHRRC’s exploration of two core questions [regarding sugar contracts]: (1) can we identify a transparent grower-buyer relationship between buying companies ranked in our KnowTheChain (KTC) benchmark; and (2) are there provisions in the contracts of growers that bind them to improving their practices with respect to land rights, labor rights, and remedy? We implemented the project in three phases:

  • First, we completed a mapping of sugar contracts on OpenLandContracts.org to global sugar, beverage, and confectionery brands ranked in our KnowTheChain (KTC) benchmark, and linked reports of abuse and/or good practice on the BHRRC’s website to the relevant contracts available on OpenLandContracts.org. As predicted, none of the local companies found with agreements on OpenLandContracts.org at the time we conducted the research were found to be suppliers of global brands included in our KTC work.
  • Second, we mapped the companies with sugar contracts on OpenLandContracts.org to allegations of abuse documented on BHRRC’s website. This inter-linkage encourages stakeholders to look at the commitments these companies make in their contracts with governments alongside their conduct during the operation phase of an investment. (See, for example, the Heng Yue and Koh Kong pages on the BHRRC platform.)
  • Third, we produced a briefing paper analyzing the terms of the sugar contracts available on OpenLandContracts.org and comparing them with global brands’ policies and practices on land rights, labor rights, and access to remedy.

CCSI: What impact did the project have?

GB: The project has allowed us to engage with a new set of stakeholders: producers rather than individuals or communities affected by investments. A critical next step is to encourage companies to disclose policies relating to the issues we examined in the briefing note, namely: land rights; labor rights; and access to remedy. We are also exploring how to expand and apply the methodology used in this work to other industries. Engaging concretely with governments to promote disclosure of contracts is also on our list.

CCSI: As in other regions, transparency around land-based investments is limited in most countries in Southeast Asia. What are the major barriers that undermine or preclude disclosure of land contracts specifically?

GB: Two of the major barriers we come across in our work are: (1) reluctance on the part of investors to disclose “private” or “commercially sensitive” information; and (2) contracts or international treaties that discourage disclosure due to confidentiality clauses. In practice, neither of these arguments should preclude disclosure. A further hurdle is that, even where there is an understanding that the documents are public documents, it can be difficult to locate where the documents are physically stored.

CCSI: What do you see as the potential advantages and disadvantages of greater transparency around land contracts and land-based investments more generally?

GB: Greater transparency allows us to see how governments are interacting with companies, and which companies are operating where. Specific provisions in the contracts can inform the type of advocacy strategy needed to pursue a particular objective. However, even with greater transparency, legal and technical support for affected communities is critical to promote understanding of contractual provisions and their implications for community rights and interests.

CCSI: How can contractual information be used by different stakeholders to make investments more equitable and strengthen corporate accountability?

GB: Local producer organizations can use contractual information to negotiate for better prices with buyers by looking at past prices in contracts. Other stakeholders, including civil society organizations, can also review these agreements to understand the terms of negotiated deals. For example, in Cambodia, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, was recently urged to investigate government involvement in alleged land grabbing. One of the relevant allegations relates to the Heng Yue project. The contract for this sugarcane project is available on OpenLandContracts.org, and covered by our briefing note supported by the Mini Grant. If the investigation proceeds, the contract will provide a valuable source of information regarding the project and terms governing the deal.

CCSI: What can platforms like OpenLandContracts.org do better to support your work?

GB: It would be great if platforms could link to legislation and other resources that could further elaborate on the information available in the contracts themselves. Linking to legislation, for example, could help us to understand whether companies that do not have, or do not implement, policies on labor are failing to comply with legal requirements applicable in the jurisdictions in which they are operating. The resources available on the guides page of OpenLandContracts.org, where our briefing will also be published, are helpful; however, additional resources could supplement these guides and further support knowledge-building around the terms that govern land-based investments.

OpenLandContracts.org was launched in October 2015 by CCSI with support from the UK Department for International Development. The repository currently includes more than 390 contracts and associated documents from 18 countries. To help stakeholders understand these often-complex legal documents, OpenLandContracts.org also provides plain-language summaries, or annotations, of each contract’s key fiscal, social, environmental, operational, and human rights provisions.

Follow CCSI on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn for updates as more contracts are disclosed on OpenLandContracts.org. We welcome your questions, comments, and feedback and ask that you contact us by email (info@openlandcontracts.org).

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