A United Nations report on human rights abuses in countries that grow sugarcane was part of a recent global business forum in Geneva. Its contents shed light on how sugar is produced in some countries looking to ramp up production no matter the cost.
The 28-page report from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council notes that much of the world’s sugar comes from sugarcane grown in Brazil, China and India. Among the findings:
- Deadly conflicts over land have proliferated.
- Deforestation has increased food insecurity and malnutrition.
- Land acquisitions routinely lead to forced eviction and loss of hunting and grazing land.
- A lack of consultation with communities has resulted in the destruction of religious sites.
The report, from the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, found indigenous and non-indigenous communities rarely have adequate judicial remedies for abusive land acquisition.
“The criminalization of affected community members and human rights defenders continues to mar efforts towards access to justice, in the context of widespread intimidation, harassment and killings of community members and human rights defenders in relation to land acquisitions,” according to the report.
The U.N. found labor rights are also an issue at sugar plantations and mills abroad. It noted cases of child labor, forced labor, dangerous working conditions, health and safety concerns and limitations on labor unions.
Nations, businesses and financial institutions are all responsible for protecting human rights in sugar production, the U.N. report said.
The report was filed in August, ahead of the 2016 United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.
The U.N. report is not the first time sugar producers outside the United States have been criticized for human rights abuses.
The U.S. State Department in 2014 reported there were an estimated 50,000 people working in slave-like jobs in Brazil. The nation’s sugarcane industry was flagged for using illegal child labor, according to the report.
China and India also have poor records when it comes to child labor and working conditions in agriculture.
“The human rights abuses documented in the U.N.’s recent report are deplorable,” said Jack Pettus, chairman of the American Sugar Alliance. “While American farmers operate under some of the toughest labor and environmental standards on Earth, many of our competitors around the globe cut corners with lax labor and environmental laws to gain a competitive edge. Sadly, this is not news.”
Pettus said that foreign competitors are also ramping up subsidies, which further fuels overproduction and depresses global prices. America’s sugar producers hope to level the playing field through a multilateral “zero-for-zero” policy that would amount to a global subsidy cease fire.
Legislative attempts to unilaterally disarm U.S. sugar policy and outsource U.S. sugar production to other countries is likewise problematic in light of the U.N.’s report, Pettus said.
“Misguided attacks on America’s no-cost sugar policy could force the U.S. to source more of its sugar from these countries, which would only reward their bad acts,” he explained.
The U.N. report made recommendations to corporations and governments to end human rights abuses involved in sugar production, including:
- Guarantee the land rights of local communities.
- Ensure environmental impact assessments prior to land deals.
- Protect environmental rights defenders.
- Require companies to conduct human rights due diligence.
- Strengthen human rights policies.
“While systemic change involves considerable time and resources, efforts to prevent, mitigate and address adverse impacts on human rights are both urgent and critical for the affected communities,” the U.N. said in the report.