10/03/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2013

The Bitter Secret of Sugar

Keo Chhorn, 63, is a father-of-six in south-western Cambodia. He and his wife worked the seven acres of land that have been in their family for 30 years to grow watermelon, rice and cashews, earning more than a thousand dollars a year and putting food on the table. That's until the bulldozers came to clear out his land.

"The villagers banded together and tried to stop the bulldozers clearing the land but we didn't succeed," he told Oxfam researchers recently. "We lost our land and now it's very hard to find work to support the family, to feed them and to send my children to school."

Nearly 500 families from three villages lost land in the clearing operations. While some villagers were offered some compensation, no one knocked on Keo's door to offer him any money.

"Our land was taken and our complaints were rejected," he said. "We are joining together and raising our voice to fight. I won't stop fighting to get my land back."

Keo and his community are not the only ones fighting for their land back. In a new Oxfam report , we outline how across the world, land grabbing is the bitter secret in the sugar supply chains of some of the world's biggest food and beverage companies.

As global demand for sweets increases, so does the rush for land to grow sugarcane. Our investigation found that in countries like Brazil and Cambodia, companies that produce and supply sugar to Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other food and beverage giants are kicking poor farmers off their land and violating their rights.

Elsewhere, Associated British Foods (ABF) -- the biggest sugar producer in Africa -- is reportedly linked to a range of other unresolved land disputes.

Whole communities are losing their main source of food and income -- but global brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and ABF are doing very little to ensure the land rights of communities where their sugar is grown are respected. And the sugar grown on the land that Keo is fighting for could end up in your can of Coke or Pepsi.

Where land grabs occur, families are being unfairly evicted from their land and left with no way to grow food or earn a living. Their homes, jobs and livelihoods are taken from them -- sometimes violently -- and there is nothing they can do about it. Land grabs are big business for rich investors -- with a big cost for poor people.

Sugar production is very land intensive. Currently 76 million acres of land -- the size of Italy -- are used for sugar production. And it's only likely to increase, as global sugar consumption is predicted to rise by 25 percent by 2020.

Companies like Coca Cola and PepsiCo are giants of the global sugar trade and have the power to make a real difference. Coca-Cola is the world's largest purchaser of sugar in the world and controls 25 percent of the global soft drink market share. PepsiCo controls 18 percent of the world soft drink market. And we've found that there are problems involving land in their supply chains -- problems that they could tackle better if they had stronger policies, and pave the way for others to follow.

International companies have already shown that they can tackle issues inside their supply chains, such as the prevention of child labor and the recognition of the human right to water. We believe it's absolutely reasonable for them to tackle issues like land grabs and land disputes, too. So we're calling on Coca Cola, PepsiCo and ABF to implement policies to ensure that their sugar sourcing doesn't lead to land grabs. Global supply chains are often as opaque as they are complex, so we're urging these companies to publicly disclose from whom and where they source their commodities, publish assessments about how the sugar they purchase affects local communities' land rights and use their power to encourage governments and the wider food industry to respect land rights.

Knowing that thousands of people are suffering around the world like Keo, makes our favorite sweet drinks taste rather bitter. But we can do something about it if we all ask these companies to prevent land grabs in their supply chains. If enough people speak up, companies will have no choice but to listen.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.