Politics of Poverty

More than a sugar-coated promise? 4 signs Africa’s biggest sugar producer may be on the right track when it comes to land

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Sugar cane grown outside the the Haitian town of Saint Michel de l'Attalaye, Haiti May 8, 2010. Photo: Ami Vitale / Oxfam America

Illovo publishes ‘roadmap’ for implementing its commitment to respect communities’ land rights.

Last spring Africa’s biggest sugar producer, Illovo Sugar, adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to land grabs. In November, it published a roadmap for how it plans to implement it. Both resources are available in English and Portuguese.

A policy commitment is an essential first step to ensuring the company respects communities’ land rights, and thankfully, these days more and more companies are starting to pay attention.  For Illovo, ‘zero tolerance’ means it’s committed to address land-related conflicts (starting with its Dwangwa operations in Malawi), assess land tenure risks and impacts, develop grievance mechanisms, and respect communities’ free, prior, and informed consent when it or its suppliers acquire new land. The commitment is comprehensive and forward-looking. And while getting implementation right on something like this is often the longest road, Illovo appears to be on the right track with its new roadmap.

Here are four reasons I’m optimistic about Illovo’s plan:

#1: It includes a timeline to assess the company’s land rights risks and impacts in all six countries by the end of March, 2018, beginning with its own operations in Malawi and Mozambique by 30 June 2016.

Illovo committed to conduct these assessments in its original policy commitment. Now, it has a schedule to adhere to. These assessments will help Illovo know and understand where it’s posing risks to or affecting communities’ land rights.

#2: It will develop a strategy for how to address gaps in policy and practice within three months of completing each assessment.

This is essential: An assessment means little without a plan and commitment to address the issues the company identifies. Importantly, these action plans will include timelines and budgets, signalling the company is planning to commit the resources it needs to follow up on its findings.

#3: It will train diverse groups of its employees on land issues and rights by 30 June 2016.

Employees involved in Illovo’s operations – not just its Corporate Social Responsibility team – need to know what to be on the lookout for when it comes to land, and how to ensure their actions align with the company’s policy. They are the ones making business decisions that can either support or infringe upon people’s land rights.

#4: Illovo is seeking ongoing input and guidance on implementation from external experts

I’m encouraged to see the company reaching out to land experts, including Oxfam, to help, as these are complex issues that the company can’t get right on its own. More companies should be taking similar steps to get external guidance on issues like these. However, experts aren’t substitutes for the company talking with potentially affected community members themselves, to hear what they are most concerned about and enable them to help the company invest in land in ways that benefit people.

The roadmap is already helping the company define the steps it needs to take and get internal alignment around the plan. The roadmap will also serve as an important tool for transparency – allowing Oxfam and others to monitor the company’s progress – and with versions of the policy in both English and Portuguese, a more diverse group of stakeholders can take part (though there is more Illovo can do to make these resources more accessible to communities, such as translating documents into local languages or holding public meetings to discuss its plans).

This is just the beginning of the implementation journey for Illovo, but judging by the map the company has drawn for itself, it is headed in the right direction and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

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