What Is An Investment Chain

Behind every investment project, such as a plantation, a processing plant or a hydropower dam, there are a variety of actors that make the project possible. This section explains key terms and describes the different actors and relationships that make up an investment chain.

What Is An Investment Chain

An investment chain connects all of the actors involved in any investment project. A typical investment chain includes many types of actors, such as companies, banks, suppliers, and development finance institutions. All of the actors in the chain make the project possible.

Money flows in both directions through the investment chain. It can be useful to think of it as a river with a current that flows both upstream and downstream.

We can think of investors and lenders as being upstream. Money flows from these actors to the parent company and then to the business managing the investment project, which is in the middle of the stream (and investment chain).

The buyers of the product and its end users or consumers are downstream. They pay for the product, and by doing so provide money that flows back up the stream to the business. From there, it goes to its parent company, and then on to upstream investors, who now earn financial gains from their investment.

At the heart of the chain – referred to as the midstream – is the company that manages the project. This part of the chain is usually physically visible and is where the companies and communities interact and where decisions about land use and access are made by the government, business and, in some cases, local communities.

When agreements can’t be reached, or local communities are not involved in decision-making, it is also the place where conflict over land and resources may arise. Contractors are also found at this part of the investment chain. They are paid by the company managing the project to carry out services or provide inputs for their operations.

Why Map an Investment Chain?

The actors, relationships and decisions that exist in an investment chain determine the nature of the project, including its negative and positive impacts on local communities, national economies and the environment. By mapping an investment chain, you can better understand who the actors are, and the relationships, movement of money and other types of influence among them.
Actors in one segment of the chain can have influence over actors located in other segments of the investment chain, because of different levels of power. For example, a large investor in a parent company can have a lot of influence over the business managing the project. A major buyer can also influence the business and how it runs the project. If a buyer hears about human rights abuses at the plantation of its supplier, the buyer may threaten to stop purchasing the product from the business managing the project unless the problem is solved.

This is why understanding an investment chain can ultimately help to identify how we might be able to influence a business and its behaviours. This information can be used to design advocacy strategies that influence the social and environmental impacts of a project.

Who Are the Actors in an Investment Chain?


The most visible actor in an investment chain is the business managing the project. This is the actor that is responsible for day-to-day operations of the project, which may include one or several components. For instance, a coal-fired power project might include the plant itself, transmission lines to distribute the electricity to consumers, and a port facility to import the coal.

The business might also interact with a government to secure licences and land leases. It also interacts with local communities. The business will have a physical presence, usually an office, in the country where the project takes place. The business can take different legal shapes or forms but will usually be a company.

Besides the business that manages the project, other actors that make the project possible include:

  • Parent companies that own the business that manages the project;
  • Investors and shareholders that invest money in a company in return for shares;
  • Lenders that make loans to a project or a company;
  • Governments that offer land to the business managing the project and allow a company to be registered and operate in their country or region;
  • Brokers that play a role in helping to secure business deals and communicating between or supporting different actors involved;
  • Contractors that carry out certain jobs on the ground on behalf of the project; and
  • Buyers that purchase the produce grown or processed by the project.

Box 1: What Is a Company?

A company is formed by an individual or group of individuals to conduct business or other activities. Once a company is officially registered, it becomes its own separate legal entity. This means that the company itself, rather than the individuals that form it, is legally responsible for these activities.

A company has shareholders who hold shares in the company, meaning that they partly own it. Shareholders invest in a company when they buy shares, and expect to make money on their investment as the company earns profit.

Both the individuals that form the company and the company’s shareholders are protected from being held personally responsible for the activities and debts of the company. This is called limited liability. Once a company is formed, money can be borrowed and contracts signed in the name of the company, rather than the individuals who established, own or manage it.

A company may take different forms, including a sole ownership (often called a sole proprietorship), a private company or a public company:

  • A sole ownership is a single person who owns the company and operates a business under the name of the company.
  • A private company has a small number of shareholders and sells shares privately, and not to the general public.
  • A public company usually has a large number of shareholders, and its shares are bought and sold on one or more public exchanges, such as stock exchanges. Public stock exchanges allow shares to be bought by anyone, including the general public or another company.

Most companies have the same basic structure. They have shareholders, directors, and a management team to run the company, which usually includes a chief executive officer, a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer. The management team reports to the board of directors.

Directors are usually appointed to the board by a company’s shareholders. The role of a board of directors is to help direct the company’s management. The directors have a duty to act in the interests of the company and for the benefit of the company’s shareholders.

Typical Company Structure


Parent Companies

Parent companies are usually firms that have control over one or more smaller businesses. The business managing the project on the ground will usually either be a subsidiary of the parent company or a local branch of the parent company.

  • If the business is a subsidiary, it is legally a separate company, but the parent company holds more shares in it than anyone else or may even be the only shareholder. This means that the parent company has the power to control how the business is managed. A parent company may be heavily involved in management of a subsidiary, or it may leave the management to the subsidiary company itself.
  • If the business is a local branch of the parent company, this usually means that it is the same legal entity as the parent and, therefore, controlled completely by the parent company.

A parent company might be based in the same country as its subsidiary or in a different country. By being based in a different country, it may also be able to take advantage of lower tax rates.

Parent companies may sometimes be holding companies. These companies do not produce any goods or services themselves, but exist only to control (through ownership of shares) another company. The holding company is not liable (legally or financially responsible) for debts of the companies it owns. For example, if one of the companies it owns goes bankrupt (meaning it does not have enough money or property to pay back what it owes to others) the holding company is not liable for the debt.

Investors and Shareholders

Investors put money into a company by buying shares, usually with the expectation that they will make money on their investment either in the short or long term. Investors own a part of the company, which is also referred to as equity. They may invest directly in the business managing the project or indirectly, by buying shares in the parent company.

If a company is financially successful, investors make money by selling their shares for a value greater than the amount they originally paid for the shares. Shareholders also receive some of the company profits, called dividends.

Some investors are more interested in short-term financial gains and are willing to invest in riskier projects that may not be sustainable in the long term, for example because of potential negative social and environmental impacts. Other types of investors may consider the long-term sustainability of the project, and will invest in less risky projects that will generate financial gains over the long term.

Although long-term investors are usually most concerned with financial risk, they often recognize that when social and environmental risks are not addressed, these can create financial risks. For example, communities may protest against a harmful project or even sue the company in court if their land is taken unlawfully. These actions may delay or prevent the project’s development – leading to higher operational costs and lower profits.

Box 2: Types of Investors:

Investment banks connect companies or individuals looking to invest their money with companies that are seeking investors. Investment banks then facilitate and manage the investment.

Investment funds are pools of money from individuals, companies and governments that are invested on their behalf by a fund manager. The fund manager decides which companies or projects to invest the pool of money in. Examples include:

  • Hedge funds are open to a limited number of people who can contribute large sums of money. These funds are usually more willing to take risks than other funds, in order to achieve large profits. Hedge funds usually aim to make large profits rapidly. Hedge funds are generally less regulated than other types of funds and disclose less information about their activities.
  • Insurance firms can also be investors and lenders. When people or companies buy insurance, the firm agrees to pay them the value of the thing has been insured if that thing is lost, or damaged. This can include property or a person’s health or even their life. Insurance firms invest the money received when people buy insurance. In most countries, insurance firms are heavily regulated by government and are restricted in the type of investments they can make. Because of these regulations, an insurance firm will generally invest in less risky projects and companies.
  • Mutual funds are typically more accessible than hedge funds by being open to investors who have smaller amounts of money to invest. A mutual fund usually has a set of investment objectives, which guides its investment decisions.
  • Pension funds collect a pool of money from workers, usually from their salaries. The fund invests the pooled money on the behalf of workers. The investment plus any earnings are then paid to the workers once they retire, so they continue to have some income once they have stopped working. As millions of workers contribute their money to pension funds, these funds are very important in financial markets. Pension funds must pay out funds to the workers when they retire, so they are generally more heavily regulated by governments than other funds and are likely to make less risky investments.
  • Private equity funds generally invest in private companies that do not make their shares available on a stock exchange. In some cases, private equity funds might buy all of the shares in a public company and turn it into a private company. The money in private equity firms comes from a variety of sources, including pension funds, insurance companies and banks. Generally, private equity firms commit large sums of money to their investments for longer periods of time. This allows for necessary changes to make a company profitable.

Individuals invest in companies, usually as shareholders. Individuals might invest in a company directly, for instance by buying a number of shares on a public stock market. Individuals might also invest in a company through one of the pooled funds discussed above, such as a mutual fund or hedge fund.


If individual investors are prominent public figures, they might be vulnerable to reputational harm. This might present an advocacy opportunity. For instance, the American actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger invested in Dimensional Fund Advisors, a U.S. investment firm that in turn holds shares in a range of companies around the world, including some that are causing environmental damage.


Lenders make money available to a business with an expectation that it will be repaid. On top of the repayment of the amount of money loaned, the lender will usually add interest (a percentage of the amount borrowed) and fees. Loans are also referred to as debt financing.

Commercial banks provide financial services, including loans, to the general public and to companies under certain conditions, including the payment of interest and fees.

Multilateral development banks, sometimes referred to as international financial institutions, are owned by more than one government. The World Bank, with 188 member countries, is perhaps the best known. The Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are multilateral development banks that invest in a particular region.

These banks offer loans to developing country governments or private companies for projects in developing countries. Unlike private investors, the mission of multilateral development banks is to reduce poverty. They are supposed to make investing and lending decisions on the basis of their development and poverty alleviation impacts.

Bilateral development banks are owned or controlled by one government. For instance, FMO is the Dutch government’s bank for investing in the private sector in developing countries. The mission of bilateral development banks is to reduce poverty. They are supposed to make investing and lending decisions on the basis of their development and poverty alleviation impacts.

Other bilateral financial institutions, such as policy banks, import-export credit agencies, and trade banks, are not explicitly tasked with reducing poverty, although they sometimes invest in projects in developing countries that do so. These banks have a range of goals, including promoting trade, facilitating overseas investment, and implementing the foreign policy of their government. For instance, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation is a Japanese government-owned policy bank that promotes economic cooperation between Japan and other countries.


Sometimes the lines separating the different types of government-owned financial institutions can be blurry. For instance, the U.S. government-owned Overseas Private Investment Corporation acts simultaneously as a development, trade and policy bank. It’s stated goals are to promote development, help U.S. businesses gain footholds in overseas markets, and advance U.S. foreign policy interests.


The nation where the project is based is called the host country. The host country’s government might negotiate deals and investments and establish the legal framework for the project. Host-country governments play a central role in determining:

  • Whether an investment should take place,
  • What the conditions of any investment should be,
  • How a business should be legally registered,
  • What taxes a business should pay, and
  • If the government owns or manages the land, what the terms of a land lease or sale should be.

These roles may be carried out by national, regional or local-level governments, depending on the governance structure of the country. There may also be different ministries and agencies involved, including ministries of mining or agriculture, investment promotion agencies, ministries of planning, and ministries of the environment or environmental protection agencies.

For example, a ministry of environment or environmental protection agency is usually responsible for ensuring compliance with environmental legislation, for overseeing environmental impact assessments, and monitoring the on-going environmental impacts of a project. A ministry of commerce helps to facilitate trade and investment in a country, and may be responsible for approving the registration of new businesses. The names of various ministries and their specific roles in investments vary from country to country. The degree of integration and coordination among different levels of government and various ministries will also vary greatly.

The business itself, its parent company, investors, lenders and buyers may be based in a country other than the host country. Governments of these home countries – where the investor, lender or buyer is located – can also play a significant role in regulating companies and holding them accountable.

Other Actors: Brokers, Contractors and Buyers

Most projects have a range of third-party actors that enable or benefit from it. These actors are generally found at the midstream and downstream levels:

Brokers: In some cases, an individual may be involved in making an investment project possible. For example, he or she might facilitate communication between the business managing the project and the government or local communities. They might facilitate the investment by liaising with different ministries to obtain land leases or relevant business licenses and permits.

Contractors: In many land-based projects such as dams and plantations, contractors carry out important activities. They might conduct assessment studies, clear the land, or construct buildings or facilities.

Buyers: These are the companies that purchase products from the business running the project – or products manufactured from the raw materials created by the project. They might be:

  • Trading companies, which buy and sell large amounts of a product, for instance an agricultural commodity such as sugar, on the global market;
  • Distributors, such as electricity companies, which transmit power to consumers through an electrical grid;
  • Processors or manufacturers, which buy raw products to include as a component or ingredient in another product; or
  • Retailers, which sell a product, such as sweets or soft drinks, to the end user or consumer.

These buyers might be local or international and can be large or small. A number of buyers might buy products from the business, or there may be just one buyer. A government can also be a buyer.

Buyers might be very close or very distant geographically from the project. For example, a mill, which processes palm oil, sugar or another raw material, is likely to be physically close to the plantation, while a retailer, which is selling the end product to consumers, might be anywhere in the world.

The general public – people like you and I – are likely to be the ultimate buyers and consumers of finished products. For example, we might use the electricity generated by a hydropower dam to power our houses or buy a bar of soap from a market or store that contains palm oil.

Relationships in an Investment Chain

Relationships between actors in an investment chain are important to understand. They can help you identify which actors have the greatest influence over the business managing the project.

At each point in the investment chain, negotiations take place and decisions are made between actors. For example, when a private equity fund decides to invest in a parent company, a negotiation takes place, sometimes publicly, but often behind closed doors. During this negotiation, a relationship is established between the two actors within the chain. The investor might decide how much to invest, and whether to attach any conditions to that investment.

External factors will also shape these relationships and the decisions made by each actor in an investment chain. For example, a country’s laws and policies will affect how much tax the business has to pay, which will affect its profit, and therefore influence an investor’s decision about how much to invest and for how long.

At the upstream end of the chain, the relationships between investors, lenders and parent companies or the business are usually formally agreed and then set out in contracts. These contracts are usually not made publicly available. This is justified for reasons of commercial confidentiality – to safeguard sensitive information that competitors might use for their own advantage.

The relationships established between the business and governments at the midstream part of the chain, such as tax incentives and the terms of land leases or ownership, are also typically formalised through written contracts. Agreements around land use with local communities may be either formal or informal. If communities don’t have formal ownership or use rights, they may be ignored altogether in agreements, a common cause of land conflict.

At the downstream end, the nature of the relationship between the business and buyers varies depending on the product being sold, the size of the transaction, the size of the buyer and the business, and a number of market forces that exist both nationally and internationally.

Where contracts and formal agreements do exist, they are sometimes made publicly available – but this varies from place to place and project to project. Laws and policies in both host countries (where the investment is taking place) and home countries (where the investor or parent company is based) can play an important role in determining what information is made publicly available.

For example, the home country may require that all land leases or investment contracts are made available through a public registry. When legal agreements are publicly available, they provide a very important source of information about the relationship between actors on the investment chain.

The diagram below gives a real-life example of an investment chain for a project in Sierra Leone – a sugarcane plantation, ethanol distillery and biomass power plant producing ethanol and electricity. Ethanol is primarily for export to the European market. Electricity will be fed into the national grid.

Useful Resources

Understanding agricultural investment chains: Lessons to improve governance. Cotula and Blackmore, 2014.

Investopedia, for definitions and more information on the types of actors you might find in your investment chain.

IIED Animation:  Promoting accountability in agricultural investments:

How To Map An Investment Chain

This section explains how to map an investment chain. It will give you tools and methods for identifying and recording the different actors along the chain and important information about each one.

How To Map An Investment Chain

Things to Keep in Mind Before Mapping an Investment Chain

Important Point

Every investment chain is unique. Mapping an investment chain can be more or less complicated depending on a number of factors, including its size and geographic reach. A large investment chain might be spread over a number of different countries or continents.

For example, a project in Africa may have investors in Asia and buyers in Europe. One company might also be spread over many countries. A large buyer of an agricultural product, for example, might have its headquarters in Europe, a visible retail brand in the United States and Asia, and be listed on public stock exchanges in New York, London and Hong Kong.

When mapping an investment chain, we recommend keeping track of the information you find using our investment chain worksheets. Record the actors you discover on Investment Chain Worksheet 1; using that information, complete Investment Worksheet 2.

As you do the mapping, it is helpful to keep the following factors in mind:

Geography is important: Key actors in an investment chain can be spread across different countries and continents. This means that they are subject to different laws, policies and regulations that apply in their home countries as well as in the host countries in which they operate. The legal, social and political situation in the different countries involved can both limit and increase the advocacy opportunities to influence the project.

It is therefore important to note which countries the actors are based in and which other countries are relevant to their operations. For example, an actor may have a visible retail brand in another country, including a distinctive name, logo and colors that consumers recognise. In addition, they may be listed on public stock exchanges in several countries, a common practice.

Some information may be missing: It can be difficult to trace all the actors and relationships in an investment chain, particularly those far upstream or downstream, because there is often a lack of publically available information. Even after conducting your research, you may have missed major pieces of information. Don’t be disheartened! Be persistent in your research and develop the best possible advocacy strategy with the information you have. Over time, new important pieces of information often come to light, and your advocacy strategy can evolve as you discover more about the investment chain.

Your research might be messy: Because information can be hard to find, you can’t always be systematic about doing the research. After researching upstream actors for a while, you may not have found much, so move on to the downstream part of the investment chain to see if you can identify buyers. You might find helpful information that you can use when you come back to the upstream research. Keep an up-to-date list of all sources of information, as these may be useful later.

Investment chains change over time: Investment chains are dynamic, and the actors involved can change over time. For example, an investor may decide to divest (sell all of its shares) or a subcontractor might stop providing services to the business. The business may also seek new investors or new major buyers of its product.

Relevant external factors might also change. For example, laws and policies in home or host countries – or even governments – may change, which can open or close advocacy opportunities. Since advocacy campaigns can take years, you should look out for major changes in the investment chain, because these changes may affect your strategy. Keep note of the publication date of sources you are using. When you have multiple sources for similar facts, make sure you use the ones that are most recent.

Some actors have significant power and influence: Some upstream and downstream actors have a lot of influence over the business that is managing project. For example, one investor might own the vast majority – or even all – of the shares of the parent company, which in turn wholly owns the business managing the project. Or there may be only one buyer that purchases all of the product from the project.

Powerful players such as these are usually able to exert significant influence over a project. Their choices, such as whether to continue to invest or to buy a product, have big financial implications for the business. Look out for this type of information while conducting your research because it is very important for assessing pressure points in the chain and developing your advocacy strategy.

Mapping the Midstream


An investment chain is the connection of actors and relationships that are involved in any one investment project. The different actors make an investment project possible.

The heart of the chain – referred to as the midstream part of the chain – is where the investment project physically exists. At the upstream end are parent companies, investors and lenders. At the downstream end are buyers who purchase products produced by the business.

Mapping an investment chain involves finding out and recording who the actors are and what relationships they have to other actors in the chain.

The midstream part of the investment chain is where you find the company carrying out activities on the ground. This is where the relationships – good and bad – between the business and communities take place, and where the government and business interact. This is a good place to start mapping a project, as it is the most visible part of the investment chain. Because it is so visible, you may already know much of this information – or have easy access to it. If not, these online resources can help fill in the gaps.


Using the table in WORKSHEET 1, start documenting what you already know or can easily find out about the midstream part of your investment chain. Once the table in WORKSHEET 1 is filled in you will be able to use the information to start creating your investment chain map. The diagram in WORKSHEET 2 can be used as a template for your map.

1) The business that manages the project, information about that business, and the names of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and any other important company officials, for example the Chief Financial Operator (CFO) or Chief Operating Officer (COO).

2) The relevant government agencies and ministries in the host country.

3) Any brokers who have played a role in facilitating the deal, for example by liaising between the government and the company or the community and the company.

4) Any contractors providing services or inputs that allow the project to operate. For instance, a coal-fired plant will involve one or more construction companies that are building the project’s infrastructure, and there will be additional companies that are providing specialized equipment such as turbines. These actors might be physically present at the project site.

You are likely to already have some knowledge that you can use here. For example, you may know the name of the business operating on the ground. You should start by recording all the information that you already know about the project, such as the name of the company and the type, size and location of the project. If the project has already begun operating, community members may know this sort of information from interactions with company workers or local government officials.

There might also be signs posted around the project site that provide some of this information – even an office address.

You may know – or be able to find out from colleagues – which government ministries or departments would need to be involved in approving particular aspects of the project. For example, with a rubber plantation, the Ministry of Environment might need to approve an environmental impact assessment, and the Ministry of Agriculture may need to approve the lease over the land and the type of rubber trees that can be grown there.

Local communities might have had interactions with brokers. For example, a local person may have brought company personnel to look at the site, or someone might have come to speak with the communities to try to get their support for the project. The community might have seen companies or individuals carrying out particular services or delivering inputs for the project – these could be contractors.

Where to Look: Midstream Information Resources

Some information in a project’s investment chain – particularly midstream – will already be visible to people on the ground. For information that is not readily accessible, online tools can help.

As you research midstream actors, keep a detailed record of all sources, either by listing them in Investment Chain Worksheet 1 or on an Excel spreadsheet. Be sure to note the source, date accessed, author and date of publication, as you might want to return to these at a later stage.

If you find a useful document online, remember to save it, as sometimes web pages are deleted or changed. You can either take a screenshot of the page or save the entire document to your computer’s hard drive. This guide explains how to do both.

These online tools can help you find information on midstream actors:

Internet search: A search on Google or a search engine in your home country can help fill in the gaps of your investment chain map. It can be useful to search both in your language and in English.

Use the information you have already recorded to start searching. You can start with a very broad search and then begin to narrow it down as you search for specific actors or as you find more information. For a broad search, you may want to simply enter a few keywords associated with the project. For example, you might enter the name of the business, the country or place where the investment is taking place, and the product being produced (e.g. Mega Coal Power Limited Myanmar electricity).

These searches might reveal media reports, company announcements, NGO reports and other sources of information online. It’s worth reading carefully through all of these and recording any information that can help as you map the investment chain.


When searching for names, remember to use all possible spelling variations and abbreviations. For example, when searching for the Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gia Lai, you should also try the acronym HAGL. For languages with non-Roman alphabets, such as Burmese and Mandarin, you should search for multiple spellings of a name, as transliteration into English is often inexact and inconsistent. For example, the Ann Din coal plant in Myanmar is also transliterated as Inn Din.

Company website: The business running the project may have a website. Here, you might find information about the project and key people, such as the CEO. For example, in the case of a palm oil project in Liberia, the company has published key facts and figures on its website, as well as a link to its concession agreement.

The website might also contain information about environmental, social and human rights policies, which will be very useful for advocacy. Sometimes there will even be maps and photographs of the area that can help you to identify exactly where a project will be developed.

GVL Concession Agreement

Government websites: Many government ministries and departments have websites. These sites can be useful resources for information on companies operating projects or land concessions. For instance, the Cambodian government’s Ministry of Commerce has a website allowing users to search for information on companies registered in Cambodia. The site provides details on a company’s directors, board minutes and addresses. If a government entity does not have a website, it can be useful to make an appointment to meet a relevant government official to ask for information.

Company financial reports: Annual and quarterly financial reports can be a very important source of information. These reports contain information on a company’s activities, key individuals, operational structure, financial status and shareholders. These reports can be found on company’s websites or by searching online (for instance, typing in the name of the business and annual report).

Most large, public companies are required to produce and publish annual reports. Try to find the most recent version available, although older reports might also contain useful information. Note that sometimes only the parent company will produce and publish a report. For example, Unilever’s annual report can be found by doing a Google search on Unilever and annual report.

LinkedIn: This career-based social networking website can be a useful source of information regarding people connected to a project, such as a CEO. Some companies also have LinkedIn profiles. It might give you an idea of that person’s involvement with other controversial projects or companies. Facebook and Twitter can also be useful for making these connections.

Contracts: Contracts between the parent company or the business and the host government are sometimes made publically available. These can be excellent sources of information for identifying other actors. A contract might, for example, list the different government agencies or ministries involved in a project.

These contracts may be available on the website of the relevant government department or ministry. Typing the government department, ministry name or investor name into Google or another search engine should bring up the website. You can then use the search function on these websites to search for a contract. Try searching with different keywords. For example, search the name of the business, the product, the region of the country or, if you know it, the parent company.

NGOs are sometimes able to access contracts and make them available online. For example, the NGO Grain set up a website called farmlandgrab to collect leases for agribusiness projects in Africa and Southeast Asia. Another example is OpenLandContracts, which is the first searchable online database of publicly available contracts for large land, agriculture and forestry projects.

NGOs and civil society organizations: Some organizations write articles or reports about projects or businesses, especially those that have had negative impacts on communities or the environment. These reports can be important sources of information about a project.

If you know the name of NGOs or civil society organizations that have investigated the business that you are researching, it is worth contacting them directly. Speaking to these organizations might reveal additional information that you can then follow up on. Try searching the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre database of companies to find out if the business has been involved in other problematic projects.

Open data sites: A number of websites have been set up to collect and catalogue information related to harmful investments in land. These sites adhere to the principle of open data, which asserts that information should be freely available to everyone without restriction.

Some useful open data sites include:

  • Open Corporates, which is the largest publicly accessible database of companies in the world. Though information varies from company to company, the site generally gives details on the company’s directors, its sector, any previous names and the registered address and jurisdiction. Some company profiles may even list company accounts.
  • The Land Matrix is an online database that compiles information on land deals around the world. You can search by the country or region where the project is taking place, the investor, crop type, or sector.
  • Open Development Mekong provides information on companies and concessions in the Mekong region. Originally, the site focused only on Cambodia, but it was recently expanded to include Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand.

Mapping the Upstream

The upstream part of the investment chain is where most of the money originates that makes the project possible. Each investment chain will vary in size and complexity. There may be just a few actors that invest large amounts, or there be many smaller investors. Some actors will be found far upstream.

The amount of publically available data on these actors will also vary. In general, there will be less publicly available information on private entities such as commercial banks or private equity funds, while there tends to be more information available on public entities such as mutual funds or development finance institutions. These online resources can help you identify actors.


You should try to map the following, noting the results in Investment Chain Worksheet 1:


1) The parent company – if there is one – and the name of the CEO, or any other important people involved in the management of the parent company, such as members of the board of directors.

2) Investors that own shares or equity of either the parent company or the company managing the project. You should note the name of the investor, what type of investor it is, and the names of any key individuals working there. You should also find out how much money was invested and the date of the investment, as this will be important for advocacy purposes. In addition, you should try to determine the vehicle used to make the investment, such as a mutual fund or a private equity fund.

3) Lenders that loan money directly to the business managing the project, the parent company, or a financial institution that is supporting the project. Include the name of the lender, what type of lender it is, and the names of any key people working there. Try to also find out how much money was loaned and the date of the loan.


It can be important for advocacy purposes to know the type of loan given. For instance, certain loans can only be used for specific projects, while others can be used for general business purposes, meaning the recipient can decide how to use the money. Investopedia is a good source for understanding these and other financial instruments.

4) Arrangers manage complex financial transactions, such as the issuing of bonds or overseeing a merger, on behalf of companies. These arrangers are sometimes referred to as bookrunners, advisors, underwriters or managers. Banks often play this role, although sometimes accounting firms do, too. Arrangers often receive a fee or profits for performing these services, and sometimes they also take part in the actual transaction, such as buying a portion of shares or bonds. For instance, when a bank underwrites a company’s bonds, it buys those bonds from the company and sells them on to third parties, often at a profit. In addition, the bank receives a fee for performing this service.

5) Indirect investors or lenders are located further upstream in an investment chain, sometimes several levels. For example, a multilateral development bank, such as the International Finance Corporation, might have invested in a private equity fund that in turn invests in the parent company of the business managing the project. In this scenario, the IFC is an indirect investor in the business, and the private equity fund is a financial intermediary between the IFC and the parent company and business managing the project. Although these actors are indirectly linked to the project, they are still enabling and profiting from it. Thus, they can be very important for advocacy.


Start researching the actors in the upstream end of the investment chain using the sources outlined below. Use WORKSHEET 1 to document what you find. Once the table in WORKSHEET 1 is filled in you will be able to use the information to add to the investment chain map you’ve already started with WORKSHEET 2.

Where to Look: Upstream Information Resources

In general, a project’s upstream actors will be less visible than those in the midstream. Details on loans, equity investments and other financial transactions found upstream are often undisclosed. However, with persistence and the right tools, this information can be found.

As you research upstream actors, keep a detailed record of all sources, either by listing them in your Investment Chain Worksheet 1 or on an Excel spreadsheet. Be sure to note the source, date accessed, author and date of publication, as you might want to return to these at a later stage in the research.

If you find a useful document online, remember save it. Sometimes web pages can be deleted or changed. You can either take a screenshot of the page or save the page to your computer’s hard drive. This guide explains how to do both.

These online sources can help you find information on upstream actors:

Company website: If the business managing the project has a website, it might name its parent company and investors. Look through press releases and the most recent available annual report to find names of shareholders and other information about investors.

Sometimes, only the parent company will have a website and annual report. Look carefully through all your previous sources of information for a name of a company that could be the parent company. For example, you may be able to find the name of the parent company on investment contracts.

Internet searches: Use Google or a search engine in your home country to see what articles or information exist to identify the parent company, investors or lenders. Keywords such as investments, investors, money, finance, shares, shareholders or equity can be used as search terms alongside the name of the business, parent company and other relevant project keywords.

Once you have identified the names of particular actors involved as investors or lenders, you should visit the websites of these entities. These websites – and the annual reports found on them – may provide information on the names of key people and other important information. They may also mention other actors that have invested in these upstream actors, so that you can map even further up the investment chain.

Bloomberg Businessweek: This website from the U.S. financial data provider Bloomberg has information on public and private companies and their shareholders. It’s worth searching under both the public and private categories if you are not sure about your company. In the case of a bioenergy project in Sierra Leone, for example, it is possible to access key information about the company via Bloomberg Businessweek.

OpenCorporates: This open-data website is the largest publicly accessible database of companies in the world. Though information varies from company to company, the site generally gives details on the company’s directors, its sector, previous names and the registered address and jurisdiction. Some company profiles may even list company accounts.

Stock exchanges: Many countries have one or more stock exchanges, where the public can buy and sell portions of ownership – known as shares – in a company. These exchanges often have websites with up-to-date information on companies being traded. For example, on the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange’s website, users can find information on a traded company’s share price, shareholders and board of directors, among other information.

In addition, some stock exchanges require companies to disclose information related to transactions that affect their shareholders. For instance, when the Malaysian corporation Mega First issued and sold a large number of shares in order to raise capital for a dam project, it released a prospectus describing its reasons for undertaking the transaction. The Malaysian stock exchange then posted the document on its website. This disclosure revealed important information about Mega First’s shareholders that was previously unknown.

Financial regulators: Bodies that regulate publicly listed companies and financial markets are also a source of information about parent companies and investors. Once you know which stock exchanges the company, parent company or investors are listed on, try to find out the relevant regulatory body and whether it provides a publicly available database.

For example, in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has a database of companies registered in the U.S. and overseas. When a company lists on a stock exchange, the company gets a unique code, called a ticker. If you can find this code (for example, through searches for the company name on Google) you can perform a search on that code and it may turn up important documents.

BankTrack: This NGO keeps a public database of banks involved in “dodgy deals.” Once you have found the name of one investor or lender, you can search this database to try to find more information about them and other problematic projects they are involved in. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center may also have helpful information.

Development finance institutions: These public institutions get their funding from one or more governments. Often – but not always – their goal is to alleviate poverty or spur economic growth in developing countries. If these institutions are involved as investors or lenders in a project – even indirectly – they open up important advocacy opportunities. These institutions can be multilateral, meaning they are funded and owned by many governments, or bilateral, meaning they are funded and owned by one government.

Most development finance institutions have websites. Some of these websites disclose information about projects that the institution is funding, including the date and value of an investment, its purpose, and relevant social and environmental risks. You can search for information on a project using its name, business or parent company. You can also search by country and sector, e.g. mining.


It’s important to remember that development finance institutions might not invest directly in a project, the business managing the project, or even the parent company. Such an investment might appear further upstream.

For instance, the Asian Development Bank might invest in a private equity fund, which in turn might buy shares in a parent company of a business running a project. Although the Asian Development Bank’s investment is several layers removed from the ground level, it is still contributing to – and benefitting from – the project, presenting an important advocacy opportunity.

When searching for information on a development finance institution’s website, it’s important to search for the names of investors or lenders – not just the name of a project or company. With the Asian Development Bank example described above, you would want to search for the name of the private equity fund on the bank’s website. Without taking this step, you might miss the involvement of international financial institutions, thereby depriving yourself of a strong advocacy opportunity.

In addition, it is worth looking at all of an institution’s projects in a particular country to see if there is a connection to your project, either by directly providing finance or through supporting an entire sector. For example, if your project is a plantation, look for a World Bank agriculture-sector reform project in your country or region. Or, if your project is a hydropower dam, an Asian Development Bank project to improve the efficiency of electrical transmission lines might be relevant.

The following development finance institutions disclose information about projects on their websites:

Multilateral lending institutions:

  • The African Development Bank (AfDB) provides financing to the public and private sectors in Africa. The AfDB maintains a searchable database of projects on its website.
  • The Asian Development Bank (ADB) provides financing to the public and private sectors in Asia. The ADB maintains an online database of projects, organized by country and sector, on its website.
  • The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a new multilateral institution launched by China in 2016. The bank supports infrastructure projects in Asia but has yet to make any investments. (For more information on Chinese actors, please see here.)
  • The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provides financing to the private sector in developing countries. EBRD maintains an online database of projects on its website.
  • The European Investment Bank (EIB) provides financing to the public and private sectors. EIB maintains a database of projects on its website.
  • The Green Climate Fund (GCF) invests in and accredits projects in developing countries that help counter the effects of climate change. It falls within the purview of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The fund does not yet have a database of projects.
  • The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provides financing to the public and private sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean. IDB maintains a database of projects on its website.
  • The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank Group, discloses some information about all of its investments on an online database. You can also submit requests for information to IFC management, though you will need to provide some basic information about yourself.
  • The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is a development arm of the UN. The organization maintains a searchable database of its active projects.
  • The World Bank typically provides loans to governments, mainly for public-sector projects and policy reform. However, it also provides funding to the private sector, including through public–private partnerships. Information about World Bank projects and loans can be found in an online database.

Bilateral finance institutions:

  • The German Investment Corporation (DEG), which is owned by the German government, invests in the private sector in developing countries. DEG does not maintain a searchable database of projects, but it is possible to view recent projects by region on its website.
  • The Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation (Finnfund) is the Finnish government’s development finance institution. Finnfund maintains a list of active projects on its website.
  • FMO is the Dutch government’s development bank. It provides financing to the private sector in developing countries. FMO maintains a searchable database of projects on its website.
  • The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) is a Japanese government policy bank and export credit agency designed to promote economic cooperation between Japan and other countries. Although the site does not have a devoted projects database, it is possible to find information about the bank’s investment by using the website’s search tool.
  • The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. government’s development finance institution, invests in the private sector in developing countries. The bank maintains a searchable database of projects on its website.

Mapping the Downstream

The downstream part of the investment chain is where buyers can be found. Buyers purchase the outputs from the project. A buyer that purchases a large amount of the product will be more important for advocacy than a smaller buyer. There may be one or several buyers. Some may be multinational companies, others may be small, national companies. Governments can also be buyers. In some cases, it might be possible to identify these actors from the ground. If not, these online resources can help.


You should try to map the following actors, noting the results on Investment Chain Worksheet 1.

1) Trading companies, which buy and sell large amounts of a product in global markets;

2) Processors or manufacturers, which buy the product to include as a component or ingredient in another product;

3) Retailers, which sells the product to the end user or consumer.

4) Distributors, such as power companies that transmit electricity.


The major buyers that purchase a large amount of product and big companies with visible, well-known brands are the most important buyers for advocacy purposes, so it makes sense to focus on identifying them. Governments that buy the product might also be important for advocacy.

Where to Look: Downstream Information Resources

Identifying downstream actors can be difficult, as few companies publicly disclose their supply chains – how and where they source the raw materials for their products. With that said, databases that track imports and exports can be a good source of downstream information, and general internet searches can also turn up leads. Knowing these actors further downstream offers additional options for your advocacy strategy.

As you research downstream actors, keep a detailed record of all sources, either by listing them in your Investment Chain Worksheet 1 or on an Excel spreadsheet. Be sure to note the source, date accessed, author and date of publication, as you might want to return to these at a later stage in the research.

If you find a useful document online, remember save it. Sometimes web pages can be deleted or changed. You can either take a screenshot of the page or save the page to your computer’s hard drive. This guide explains how to do both.

These online sources can help you find information on downstream actors:

  • Sources on the ground: It might be worth asking a business representative who is physically present at the project if they know who will buy the product. If there are only one or two major buyers, it’s possible that this person may know who they are and be willing to tell you.
  • Company websites: The website of a business or its parent company might mention major buyers of its product, especially in media announcements. For example, as part of Coca-Cola’s commitment to end land rights violations within its supply chain, the soft-drink maker has disclosed some of its sugar suppliers on its website. If you are able to identify a major trader or processor that buys product from your project, that company’s website might provide information on who its customers are. For instance, the website of the sugar producer Tate undefined Lyle discloses retailers that carry its products.
  • Import and export databases: Upon request, the United States discloses data on imports crossing its borders. Free websites such as Port Examiner collect some of this data and compile it into searchable databases with details including supplier, importer and product description. Subscription-only websites such as Import Genius and Panjiva offer more exhaustive U.S. import data, but for a fee. The European Union discloses imports to member countries by product type and the relevant import regime or treaty, but the data is not detailed and the database can be difficult to use.
  • Internet search: Try a general Google search using keywords such as the business or parent company name, the product it makes, and words like sell, buy, supplier, and purchase. You might find a reference to a deal or potential deal between the business/parent company and a major buyer.Another option is to search for the largest global companies that buy the particular product being made by the business. For example, you might search for bauxite, rubber or tungsten and add search terms such as global buyer, trading companies or processor. You can also try searches like top 10 sugar companies. You can then search the websites and annual reports of some of the biggest companies to see if they list their suppliers.You could also use Google to search the names of each of the largest companies in the industry and the name of the business or parent company to see if you get any results.
  • OpenCorporates: Once again, this website might be a useful source of information for companies in the downstream part of your investment chain.

Useful Resources

Training on using Google.

A beginner’s guide to online research.

Google search tips, by Google.

Understanding how Google Search works.

Identifying Pressure Points

In this section, you will learn what a pressure point is. You will also learn how to assess the strength of different pressure points by investigating the specific actors and relationships in the investment chain and the external factors that affect them. Finding pressure points can help you target your advocacy to most effectively influence the behaviour of different actors, and ultimately the project on the ground. This increases the chances of achieving your advocacy goals, such as protecting land rights, avoiding negative environmental impacts or seeking remedies for violations and harms that have already occurred.

Identifying Pressure Points

What Is a Pressure Point?

Pressure points are the actors and relationships in an investment chain that can be targeted in advocacy to influence the design, outcome and impacts of a project. They can also be targeted to obtain remedies for harms. A strong pressure point is responsive to advocacy and has the ability to influence the business managing the project and what’s happening on the ground.

When a community is harmed by a project and is seeking redress, or if a community wants to benefit from the design of a project, it is necessary to influence the behaviour of the business managing the project. But if the business itself does not respond positively to advocacy, you can try to influence other actors along the investment chain, which in turn can use their leverage to change the behaviour of the business managing the project. In order to assess how to do this most effectively, you need to identify the strongest pressure points along the investment chain.

Once you have a basic map of the investment chain – even if there are still gaps – you can start identifying pressure points along the chain and consider how strong each one might be. This will inform your advocacy strategy.

A strong pressure point:

  • Is responsive to advocacy. For example, it might be bound by relevant laws and policies, or it might be vulnerable to reputational damage; and
  • Has the ability to influence how the business is managing the project on the ground. For example, it might be a major investor or lender, a powerful government agency, or a major buyer of a raw material being produced by the project.

Analyzing Pressure Points

All of the information you’ve gathered so far and recorded in Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 will help you understand what kinds of actors are in your investment chain. Using this information and digging further, you can now identify pressure points and assess their strength. This information will help you decide what advocacy strategies will be most efficient and effective, taking into account your time, resources and capacities.

Many of the sources you identified and included in Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 will also be useful to understand the relative strength of the pressure points. Otherwise, use the same research techniques and sources already discussed to do further digging. For example, company websites and annual reports will usually list the CEO of a company, its country of registration, its revenue, its shareholders and sometimes even the banks from which it has received loans. Information about government agencies is usually best found online through Google searches and the websites of these agencies.


Following are key questions you need to answer to identify and understand the strength of pressure points in the investment chain. Answering these questions will help you assess each actor’s likely responsiveness to advocacy and their ability to influence the business managing the project. You can summarise your answers to these questions using the table in Worksheet 3.

Assessing Pressure Points: General Questions

General Question 1: If it is a company, is it public or private?

Whether a company is public or private can affect the amount of information it must disclose, the number of shareholders it is likely to have, and whether information on shareholders is made public. This affects the incentives and decisions made by the company – and therefore the strategies that might be used to influence it.

The difference between public and private companies, and how much information they publish, depends on the country or region where the company is registered. For example, in the European Union, private companies have to publish their financial statements. And in Common Law jurisdictions, private companies generally have to make some basic information public. But in general, private companies tend to have fewer or less demanding disclosure and reporting requirements than publicly listed companies.

If a company is public it is more likely to be sensitive to issues that might damage its reputation. A bad reputation can have a direct impact on the financial returns of a company. If a company attracts negative attention, some shareholders may decide to sell their shares to avoid future financial losses, which can cause the value of shares to fall – meaning the company loses value. This might make it harder or more expensive for the company to borrow money in the future.

For these reasons, a public company is likely to be a stronger pressure point than a private company. You can usually find out whether a company is public or private on the company’s own website: check the “about us” pages or annual report. If the company has PLC at the end of its name, then it is a publicly limited company, meaning it is public. If it ends in LLC (in the United States) it is a limited liability company, which means it is a private company. Often, a company’s website will say if it is listed on a stock exchange. If the company is listed, it is a public company.

General Question 2: Is the company owned by a government or part of a public-private partnership?

Companies can be part or majority owned by governments – either host governments or foreign governments that are investing or buying overseas. Governments might also enter into agreements with private businesses, an arrangement known as a public-private partnership. In such cases, the government is using public funds for these investments or purchases and it may therefore be more sensitive to public scrutiny, especially if the government is democratically elected. Civil society has an important role to play in holding governments and public–private partnerships to account for their investment choices and for adherence to relevant national and international laws. This includes bringing harmful investments to the attention of parliaments, media and citizens. This may make state-owned companies and public-private partnerships relatively strong pressure points.

General Question 3: Does the company have its own internal standards, policies or codes of conducts? Does it have a formal complaints process?

Companies may have their own internal policies on the environment, forests, land rights or human rights that they publicly commit to respecting and implementing. These can be used to hold companies to account. Companies that make public commitments to such standards but do not respect them face losing credibility and damaging their reputations. Some companies have formal grievance mechanisms or complaints processes that can be used if they failed to respect these policies.

The best sources of information on internal policies are company websites, since they commonly advertise these to the public for marketing purposes. Look for pages with titles such as “corporate social responsibility,” “sustainable development,” “our policies,” “our commitments” or “about us.” A company’s annual report may also mention its environmental, social and human rights policies and commitments. Search the website for a form or contact information to submit a complaint, which would indicate that the company has a process in place to deal with complaints.

General Question 4: Does the company have a strong brand and retail or other business component visible to consumers? If so, where and for what type of product or service?

Companies that have a strong brand or business component visible to consumers are more likely to be sensitive to reputational risks and negative publicity, because consumers may decide to stop buying their products or services. It may also be harder for companies to attract investors or lenders or to implement projects in the future.

Even if you are not familiar with the company’s brand because it is not well known in your country, it may be a strong brand in other countries. You may need to Google the brand and ask civil society organizations in the country where the company is based. The company’s own website may also have this information. For example, it might show the logos relevant to its brand or talk about the types of products and services it sells and to whom.

General Question 5: Is the company likely to be concerned about reputational risks because of its public image? Is the CEO or another key executive personally concerned about his or her reputation?

This question is related to questions 3 and 4 above. Some companies have invested significantly in building and maintaining a positive corporate image. For example, they might adopt environmental and social policies and advertising themselves as having ethical and responsible business practices. Publicly listed companies that claim to be “green” and ethical may be included in the portfolios of ethical investment funds, and any challenges to this claim may reduce financing options for the company.

A company’s CEO may be personally concerned about her reputation and about responsible business practices. CEOs are highly influential in dictating business strategy and practice. For example, some CEOs have made public statements that they are environmentalists or are committed to human rights. Some may even have donated large sums to social causes and told the media about it to strengthen their public image. Use Google to search for this sort of information in media reports. Where a company is concerned about corporate image and/or a CEO or other key individual is personally concerned about his reputation, it may offer a strong pressure point.

General Question 6: Is the company registered or based in an OECD country?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international economic organization with 34 member countries. The organization’s mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social wellbeing of people around the world. The OECD has created a number of standards and guidelines relating to investment and trade, including standards relating to corporate governance and environmental practices. An important one of these is the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are recommendations for responsible business conduct. The guidelines are not legally enforceable, but the governments listed below have agreed to encourage businesses based in their countries to observe these guidelines wherever they operate. The OECD Guidelines apply to all the entities within a business group, including a parent company and all of its subsidiaries or branches, that are registered or based in an OECD adhering country.

The guidelines require that “enterprises should: 1) contribute to economic, social and environmental progress with a view to achieving sustainable development; 2) respect the human rights of those affected by their activities consistent with the host government’s international obligations and commitments.”

Compliance with the OECD Guidelines is monitored by National Contact Points (NCPs) – agencies established by adhering governments to promote and implement the Guidelines. The NCPs can hear complaints from people who allege non-compliance with the guidelines.  Though the NCPs are not always effective as a grievance mechanism, companies that are registered or based in OECD countries may be a stronger pressure point than those that are not.

Countries with NCPs are:

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Mexico
  • Morocco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Peru
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • UK
  • United States

More information about NCPs is available here.

General Question 7: Does the country where the company is registered and/or operating have strong laws and regulations and an effective court system?


Although a large geographical spread can make the investment chain more complex, it may offer more opportunities for influencing the actors, because you may be able to use different laws and mechanisms, including the courts, in the various countries to apply pressure.

Laws set out the rights and obligations of the different actors involved in an investment chain. They shape the rights and recourse mechanisms that affected people can use. This is the same for both host countries, where the investment project is located, and home countries, where the parent company, investors and buyers might be based. Some of the laws that might be relevant include company law, tax law, anti-corruption laws, investment law, freedom of information laws, environment laws, property and land laws, forestry laws and tort law.

Some countries have strong laws that regulate investments and protect people’s rights and the environment. In some of these countries, the laws are enforced and there are independent and effective court systems that people can access if their rights are violated. In other countries, what is written in the law and what happens in practice can be very different, due to lack of ability within a government to enforce laws, or lack of will to do so. The courts may not be accessible, independent or effective in upholding the law. The potential for pursuing legal action needs to be carefully considered in each situation. (See here for advice on using judicial mechanisms.).

You may need the advice of lawyers based in each country to help you answer this question, but try to do a bit of research and answer as best you can for now. Organizations that may be able to offer free legal advice are listed here.

General Question 8: Is the company a member of, or certified by, an industry certification scheme?

Certification schemes exist to offer a guarantee or an assurance to consumers that companies are investing or producing according to specific environmental, social or economic standards. Buyers might require that their suppliers implement particular standards or use particular guidelines, or investors and lenders might require that any projects they finance implement certain standards. If a business receives certification, it may be able to use a label or logo to advertise its compliances to buyers, consumers or investors.

Some of these schemes also have grievance mechanisms attached to them, which allow people to make complaints if they believe the standards have not been met. This section explains these standards and how you can use grievance mechanisms in your advocacy. For now, if you find an actor along the investment chain that is a member or is certified by one of these schemes, mark this as a potential pressure point. Many such schemes have an online database you can use to search for actors along your investment chain. Companies are also likely to advertise on their own website if it has certification from these schemes. When you are looking at a company website or one of their products, look out for certification logos such as those below:

Sample Logos

For example, here are some relevant associations for the agriculture industry. Note that other industries, such as mining, have similar industry associations:

Is the business growing sugar cane? If so, then some of the midstream or downstream actors in your investment chain might be members of Bonsucro.

Is the business cultivating trees (e.g. rubber)? If so, it might have or be in the process of obtaining the Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Is the business producing oil palm? If so, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) might be relevant.

Is the business producing biofuels, e.g. soybeans or sugarcane? If so, then the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials might be relevant.

Box 3: Relevant certification schemes

An actor is likely to be a stronger pressure point if it is a member of one of these initiatives, and if it is seeking or has achieved certification from one of these schemes.

Bonsucro is a multi-stakeholder organization that requires member organisations to implement a set of objectives and principles. It also offers a certification scheme to businesses that meet a number of criteria regarding sugar production.

You can find out whether the actors on your investment chain are certified by Bonsucro by searching its database.

You can find out if any of the companies that you have identified along the investment chain are members of Bonsucro.

The Forest Stewardship Council has designed a number of principles and criteria for sustainable forestry. Businesses that manufacture, process or trade forest products can apply for certification if they meet the principles and criteria.

You can find out whether the agribusiness company affecting the community you are supporting has Forest Stewardship Council certification with this database.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil that has developed a standard, called the Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production. These principles must be met for palm oil plantations and processors along the supply chain to receive the roundtable’s certification.

You can find out whether the company is a member of the roundtable by searching this database.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels certification scheme has a set of comprehensive sustainability criteria that allow eligible producers to show buyers and regulators that their products have been produced without harming the environment or violating human rights.

You can find out whether the company is certified by the roundtable here.

General Question 9: Is the actor associated with any other negative projects?

When undertaking campaigns or applying pressure to actors in your investment chain, there may be strength in numbers. If a company is currently involved in other projects that are having negative impacts elsewhere, you may be able to identify other communities and supporters to team up with to apply pressure on the company. That may increase the strength of the pressure point. Media reports will be particularly helpful in identifying whether the actor in your chain has been associated with any other negative projects. A general Google search may help you to find these media reports. Also, see the BankTrack and Business and Human Rights Human Rights Resource Center online databases described earlier.

Understanding Chinese Investors

Since the mid-2000s, Chinese companies and financiers have become increasingly important in global investment and finance. Chinese actors now invest around the world in a range of industries, including mining, infrastructure and agriculture. In recent years, a significant number of Chinese projects have attracted negative attention, and Chinese companies are often criticised for failing to uphold high standards when operating overseas. However, in recent years various Chinese state institutions have issued statements calling on companies to implement appropriate standards when operating overseas, and several guidelines have been issued that apply specifically to overseas projects. Box 6 below contains an overview of some of these guidelines.

Box 6: Do Chinese Investors Make Strong Pressure Points?


  • The Ministry of Commerce and State Forestry Administration has issued the Guide on Sustainable Overseas Silviculture and the Guide on Sustainable Overseas Forest Management and Utilisation. These guidelines cover overseas forestry and plantations and include guidance for companies on issues including consultation and community development. These guidelines are currently being revised and improved, and there are also plans to develop specific rubber and palm oil guides.
  • The China International Contractors Association has issued the Guide on Social Responsibility for Chinese International Contractors, which provides guidance to contractors on various issues, including environmental protection and community issues.
  • China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection have jointly issued the Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation, which provide guidance to companies active overseas on ensuring that environmental and social impacts are adequately managed.

These guidelines can potentially be utilized in your advocacy with businesses and contractors. However, they are not binding, and there are no grievance mechanisms through which affected people can file complaints. With that said, they specifically address areas of concern such as environmental impacts, public communication and labour rights. You can refer to these guidelines in communications with Chinese actors involved in the investment or in your public statements and call on these actors to uphold the guidelines.

Chinese financial institutions supporting overseas investments are subject to the Green Credit Guidelines, issued by the China Banking Regulatory Commission. These guidelines cover issues including due diligence, compliance review of clients and assessments of project performance. They also state that banking institutions should make sure that project implementers abide by applicable laws and regulations on environmental protection, land, health and safety of the country where the project is located, and make public commitments to align implementation with international practices. As is the case with the industry guidelines discussed above, there is no grievance mechanism or review process attached to these guidelines, but you may be able to refer to them in your advocacy.

Finally, two of China’s state-owned policy banks, the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China (China Eximbank), are highly influential and provide a large amount of finance for overseas projects. These banks both have guidelines for overseas financing. The China Development Bank has never publicly released its guidelines. China Eximbank, on the other hand, has released its guidelines. The Guidelines for Environmental and Social Impact Assessments of the China Export and Import Bank’s Loan Projects are basic, but they include requirements that project implementers first conduct an environmental impact assessment, respect local people’s rights to land and resources, and properly handle resettlement. Once again, there is no grievance mechanism through which to raise complaints, but if you find out that China Eximbank is involved in a problematic project you can call on the bank to follow its own guidelines.

At present, it is still challenging to find pressure points when engaging Chinese companies and financiers. However, the guidelines mentioned here provide a potential tool for assessing the conduct of companies and banks — and calling for improved conduct. Although Chinese companies are still not very strong pressure points, this may change in the coming years as the guidelines and standards adopted by China continue to develop. By referring to and testing these guidelines, campaigners may be able to encourage their implementation and improvement.

For more information about the policies, standards and guidelines that apply to Chinese overseas investments and how to use them in advocacy, see Inclusive Development International’s Safeguarding People and the Environment in Chinese Investments:  A Guide for Community Advocates.

The actual policies, standards and guidelines covered in this publication are compiled here.

Assessing Pressure Points: Investor and Buyer Questions

Investor Question 1: Is the investor or lender a pension fund or insurance company?

Some investors like pension funds and insurance companies are typically more strongly regulated by government. This may also mean that in general they are more responsive to environmental, social and governance considerations. They are also typically publicly listed and can therefore be sensitive to reputational risks. It is important to bear in mind that it is difficult to make generalizations about the behavior of investors, as their objectives can vary widely. Try looking for information on the investor’s website or annual report about its investment strategy and what kinds of factors it takes into account when making investments.

Investor Question 2: How big is the loan or investment?

When the loan or investment is large, the investor or lender will have more influence over the business. For example, there may only be one loan or investment being made in the business by a single actor. This actor will have significant influence over the business because it is dependent on the financial resources of that actor.

Using the same sources identified here, you may be able to find out the size of the loan(s) or investment(s) in the business or parent company. Where there are a number of lenders or investors in the investment chain, take a note of the different sizes of the loans and investments. This will allow you to rank the possible strength of the pressure point according to the potential leverage of the investor or lender. Remember that a parent company has significant leverage over a project because it owns all or the majority of the business and can therefore influence its management and operations.

Investor Question 3: Is the investor or lender a development bank?

Multilateral and bilateral development banks often have institutional policies and standards to manage social and environmental risks. Examples include the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards and the Asian Development Bank’s Safeguard Policy Statement. Projects that receive financing from these institutions, either directly or indirectly through a financial intermediary, must apply the relevant standards. These standards and safeguard policies are included in the legal agreement between the development bank and their clients, and are therefore legally binding.

The presence of a development bank can offer a degree of financial and reputational security for the project, which can be important for relations with local governments and can be an important factor in attracting future investments or loans. For this reason, a business will typically be very keen to ensure the development bank involved in its project will not withdraw or cancel funding. This means a development bank can have a large amount of influence over the business, even if it is not a major investor or lender.

Box 4: An Overview of Development Bank Policies and Standards

The International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards contain several provisions that are relevant to human rights and sustainability outcomes. For example, Performance Standard No. 1 requires International Finance Corporation clients to, among other things, “identify and evaluate environmental and social risks and impacts of the project; to avoid, minimize, and, where residual impacts remain, compensate/offset for negative impacts to affected people and the environment.” Performance Standard No. 5 on Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement calls for the avoidance and minimization of physical and economic displacement. It also calls for the improvement or at least restoration of livelihoods and living standards of people who are displaced. Performance Standard No. 7 on Indigenous Peoples provides important protections, including the requirement to obtain the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples for impacts on their land and natural resources and relocation of communities.

The International Finance Corporation has an independent recourse mechanism – the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman  – which offers a way for stakeholders affected by projects to raise complaints. This makes the International Finance Corporation’s investment in a project, whether directly or indirectly, a relatively strong pressure point.

Regional development banks also have internal standards or policies to protect the environment and people that will be affected by the projects they fund. For example, the Asian Development Bank has a Safeguard Policy Statement. If these policies are not respected by borrowers, affected people can submit a complaint to the Asian Development Bank’s Accountability Mechanism. Once again, this makes a bank investment a relatively strong pressure point.

The African Development Bank has an Integrated Safeguards System, which sets out the policies, standards and procedures the bank’s borrowers or clients should comply with to avoid and minimise social and environmental risks. The bank also has an Independent Review Mechanism to which people affected by the actions of the bank’s borrowers or clients can submit a complaint.

The Inter-American Development Bank, operating in Latin America and the Caribbean, has an Environment and Safeguards Compliance Policy. The bank also has an Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism to address concerns raised by individuals or communities who may be adversely impacted by bank-financed operations.

The European Investment Bank  – which lends to projects within the European Union to further its policies – has a set of Environmental and Social Principles and Standards, to which all of the projects it finances must adhere. The bank has a complaints mechanism called the Complaints Office, which is designed to facilitate and handle complaints by individuals, organisations or corporations adversely affected by bank activities.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has an Environmental and Social Policy, which needs to be applied to all of its projects.The bank has a Project Complaints Mechanism to assess and review complaints about Bank-financed projects from local individuals, organisations and local groups that perceive harm from a bank project.

Investor Question 4: Does the investor or lender commit to any external standards or guidelines?

Investors and lenders such as commercial, investment or development banks may have signed up to external standards or guidelines. For example, a number of commercial banks may have signed up to the Equator Principles or the Principles for Responsible Investment (see Box 5 below). While these standards are not legally binding, they can be used in advocacy to challenge the credibility and reputation of the signatories. This may make these actors stronger pressure points.

Box 5: Some relevant standards or guidelines that investors and lenders may use

The Equator Principles are a voluntary framework developed by commercial lenders as a benchmark for their own internal social and environmental policies, procedures and standards. The Equator Principles apply to operations that meet specified criteria, including project finance (usually infrastructure and industrial projects) with total costs of at least US$10 million; and project-related corporate loans of at least US$100 million or more. Many large banks, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Rabobank Group and China’s Industrial Bank, are signatories.

Here is a list of investors that have signed up to the Equator Principles.

The Equator Principles call for social and environmental impact assessments, the application of social and environmental standards that are aligned with the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards, and culturally appropriate engagement with affected communities. Members commit to reporting annually on implementation of the Equator Principles, taking into account confidentiality considerations, meaning that there may be certain investment information they refuse to disclose. An Equator Principle Financial Institution may be “de-listed” if it does not report.

The Principles for Responsible Investment are a set of six principles that signatories commit to abide by. Signatories include asset owners (such as pension funds), asset or investment managers (for example, hedge funds) and a range of service providers. The principles relate to financial investments made in a company. For example, the principles require that signatories incorporate environmental and social governance issues into investment analysis and decision making, and into their ownership policies and practices. The principles also require recipients of investments from signatories to disclose relevant information on environmental and social risk and promote the principles within the industry.

Signatories of the Principles for Responsible Investment can be found here.

Buyer Question 1: How much product does the actor buy from the supplier?

Where there is a sole or large, dominant buyer, its relationship with the company can be a strong pressure point. In these cases, the buyer is likely to have high levels of influence over the business, which depends on the relationship for its profitability. If the buyer is sensitive to reputational risks, it may find that its image is compromised by sourcing products from a supplier that is accused of human rights abuses or negative social and environmental impacts. In these cases, the buyer may threaten to stop purchasing from the business if these abuses are not stopped and remedied.

Buyer Question 2: Is the buyer based in the EU?

Global or regional agreements are made between two or more countries that set the rules and incentives for trade between businesses in those countries. A trade agreement between a developed and developing country, for example, may allow a company to export its produce from a developing country to a developed country at lower tax rates.

The aim of such schemes is to encourage production in developing countries to improve their economies. This might create new incentives for investors to set up or invest in operations, such as large-scale hydropower projects, in a particular country. However, this may also mean the other government that formed the trade agreement (the government of the developed country or countries) has some responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of the increased investment that it incentivised.

The example of the European Union’s Everything But Arms preferential trade scheme in (see Box 22) shows how a trade arrangement relevant to a particular country, product or investment can create a strong pressure point in an investment chain.

In addition to the European Union, a number of other countries have preferential trading schemes, which may offer effective pressure points. These includes the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Switzerland. For more information, see these UN handbooks.


Understanding the actors in your investment chain; their size and influence over other players in the chain; their country of origin and operation; and any laws, standards or guidelines they might be subject to helps you to understand the potential use of pressure points within your chain. The information you have collected so far can be used to inform the design of the advocacy strategies you can use to hold different actors to account.

When you develop your advocacy strategy, keep in mind that key government agencies and brokers may be important, depending on their role in the investment project. The level of responsiveness of government agencies will vary from country to country, but the involvement of key government agencies will almost always be essential to achieving advocacy goals, such as returning land to affected communities. Brokers may be professionals – for example lawyers – who usually have to abide by a code of conduct in order to retain their licence and keep operating. Keep this in mind while you are noting key pressure points in your investment chain.

Collecting Evidence

In this section, you will learn how to document local impacts and analyze whether the project has complied with certain standards, including human rights standards, the environmental and social policies of development banks, or company or industry standards. You will also learn how to organize and present the information to use in evidence-based advocacy.

Collecting Evidence

Why Collect Evidence?

Recording and documenting the experience of the community you are supporting is crucial to successful advocacy. Collecting evidence and accurately reporting the harms that have occurred or are anticipated; the benefits, both existing and potential; and compliance with relevant standards is important for several reasons:

  • It helps ensure that the voices and experiences of the community are at the centre of the campaign.
  • The process of explaining and discussing a community’s experience can help it become more organized and think through all of the impacts of the project, both good and bad. This can help community members clearly articulate the problems they face and the solutions they seek.
  • It gives credibility to your advocacy and ensures that your claims are neither exaggerated nor understated.
  • It strengthens your advocacy by showing precisely how laws, policies, standards or codes of conduct have been breached.
  • It can form the basis of negotiations with responsible actors and an agreement for providing remedies and/or altering the project in a way that avoids harms and provides benefits to the community.

Collecting evidence involves gathering primary information directly from affected communities and other sources about the effects of the project on people and the environment. This information is typically presented in reports that include a description of the project and the affected communities, the results of the research, and an assessment of whether human rights, laws or other applicable standards have been respected or violated. Reports that find shortcomings or violations usually end with a set of recommendations for the responsible actors to provide compensation and/or to change the design of the project.

Step 1: Initial Scoping

Step 1: Identify the Main issues and Impacts on the Ground

To begin, conduct some preliminary scoping to identify the main impacts of the project. This initial scoping is necessary to design an appropriate assessment framework. This framework will help you design the data collection tools you will use when speaking to local communities and/or their representatives.

To start scoping out the issues, talk to a few people in the community about their experiences. Read media reports about the case. Try to find as much information as possible about the project, including, if available:

  • The business model of the project. For instance, if it’s an agriculture project, is it a large-scale plantation or a contract farming scheme?
  • Maps of the area that show the project’s location, boundaries and size. Does it overlap with land that is owned or used by local communities?
  • The type of project being developed and how it will affect the local environment and people. For instance, if it’s a mine, how will it affect the soil, local water sources and the environment?
  • Chemicals used or created. For instance, with a mining project, where will waste byproducts be disposed?

This type of information will help you start reflecting on the sorts of issues that are likely to arise in the implementation of the project. It helps to think about processes, gains, losses and local impacts.

Processes include things like when and how affected people first found out about the project; whether they were consulted and able to participate in the design; and other decisions about the project.

Gains include things such as access to infrastructure, water or economic benefits, such as new jobs.

Losses include things such as the land and natural resources taken or blocked by the company, in addition to houses, forests and crops destroyed.

Local impacts are the effects of the project on people’s lives, which might be linked to gains or losses, such as changes in:

  • the amount and quality of food they eat or are able to store;
  • livelihoods, income, savings and debt levels;
  • physical and mental health;
  • personal safety and security;
  • children’s lifestyles, including school attendance and play; and
  • the ability to practice cultural or spiritual traditions.

Local impacts can be both positive and negative. For example, the incomes of some households may have dropped because of land loss and the destruction of crops or natural resources that they depend upon. At the same time, other households might have increased their incomes as a result of new jobs created by the project.

It is also important to find out about attempts by the community to express their opposition or concerns about the project, and the responses they received, including any compensation. There may have been intimidation, threats, violence or arrests directed at community members who expressed their opinions or tried to defend their land and resources. These should also be recorded.

It is important to understand if there has been any support for the project and why. Communities may in fact be divided over an investment project. Some may be against it, some may be for it, and others may not be opposed to the project but want to ensure that they benefit from it and are not harmed. Although the purpose of conducting this research is to support affected people in their advocacy (whether to stop the project, redesign it, or demand redress for harms suffered) it is important to have an idea of the different perspectives that may exist among those affected. This will help you anticipate how widely supported the community’s advocacy campaign will be, as well as possible responses and defences put forward by actors along the investment chain.

At this stage, you do not need detailed data about the impacts of the project, just a general idea of what the main issues and impacts are or are likely to be.

Important Point

Make sure the community is on board. When you speak with community representatives during the scoping process, use the opportunity to explain your intention to conduct further research and what this will involve. Make sure community members want your team to conduct this research and understand how the findings can be used to support their advocacy.

You should agree on a timetable for conducting interviews, including setting dates and selecting a time of the day that is convenient for them. It is also important to discuss any security measures that will be necessary for conducting the interviews. For example, if local authorities are likely to be hostile, you may decide to conduct the interviews in a private location or outside the community.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Framework

The next step is to develop an assessment framework to help you understand whether the project has complied with relevant standards. The framework will guide you in designing your questionnaires, structuring your report, and analyzing whether the project has breached the commitments and obligations of actors along the investment chain.

Many organizations choose to conduct human rights impact assessments, because human rights standards are universal, bind governments, and are relevant to companies and financial institutions. Viewing the adverse impacts of projects as a violation of specific human rights can also be empowering for affected communities. Other frameworks used to analyze compliance include national laws, environmental and social policies of multilateral development banks, and company or industry standards and codes of conduct.


To develop an assessment framework, consider the main advocacy targets that you have identified in your investment chain analysis.

For example, if you have discovered that the International Finance Corporation has financed the project, it will be helpful to use its Performance Standards as your framework. If a company that has a strong code of conduct or internal policies is upstream or downstream along the investment chain, it would make sense to use these policies in forming your framework. You may decide to use more than one set of standards that are applicable to your case. For example, you may have found links to the International Finance Corporation, but you may also think that using human rights and national laws in your assessment will be effective in influencing advocacy targets including the company, investors and governments.

Once you have chosen the set of laws, policies or standards to use for your assessment, you can start to develop your assessment framework. Identify the specific provisions or sections that are most relevant to the main issues and impacts on the community that you found during your scoping.



List the issues and impacts that you identified during the initial scoping. Underneath each of these, list the relevant provisions from the set of international and national laws, policies and standards that you’ve chosen to use. This is your assessment framework. It will guide you when you develop your questionnaires, organise your data and structure your report.

You will need to describe your assessment framework in the report, including an explanation of why you used the particular framework, who is bound by or has responsibilities under the framework, and the particular human rights, laws, and standards that are relevant to the case.

Box 7: Case Study

A human rights impact assessment of rubber plantations in Ratanakiri, Cambodia: Building the assessment framework

NGOs working to help more than 15 villages in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province defend their land rights decided to conduct a human rights impact assessment. The project consisted of three large-scale rubber plantations that had encroached on their land and productive resources. The plantations were all owned by a Vietnamese company operating through various subsidiaries.

Screening of the main issues showed that there were major problems with the development of the project, such as a lack of information and meaningful consultation of affected communities. There were significant losses of land, forest and water resources. The main impacts appeared to be on the communities’ food consumption, income and livelihoods, as well as their cultural traditions and spiritual practices. Many of the affected communities were indigenous people, with a customary form of land tenure and food and livelihood systems that were being obstructed by the project.

The main actors responsible for the project and its impacts were the Cambodian government, the company and investors in the company. The company and some of its investors had committed to a set of standards that required compliance with national laws. The NGOs therefore decided to use both human rights and Cambodian law as the assessment framework.

  • Because many of the affected communities were indigenous, the right of self-determination was assessed. This right is recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Under these guidelines, indigenous people have the right to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent for any project affecting their lands, territories or resources. Information about the consultation processes and losses of lands, territories and natural resources were collected and analysed with reference to this right, as well as Cambodian Land Law provisions that recognize and protect indigenous land rights.
  • Information about impacts on food systems and consumption, and impacts on incomes and other aspects of livelihoods, were collected and analysed with reference to the human right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food recognised in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights..
  • Information about impacts on traditions and spiritual practices due to the loss of sacred sites was collected and analysed with reference to the right to practice cultural and spiritual traditions recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These impacts were also assessed against Cambodia’s Land Law and Forestry Law, which provide protection for indigenous communities’ customs and traditions.
  • Information about the attempts of affected communities to complain and the responses they received, including inadequate compensation as well as threats and intimidation, were collected and analysed with reference to the right to an effective remedy recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • The particular impacts on women’s rights were assessed in relation to each of the issues and impacts above.

To see the assessment framework for this case, along with another case involving sugar plantations in Cambodia, please see IDI’s website.

Step 3: Develop a Research Methodology

Although you are collecting evidence to support community-led advocacy, it is important to be as unbiased as possible when conducting research. You will need to explain your methodology in your report in order to demonstrate that the results are credible. If you don’t, your advocacy targets may try to dismiss your findings as biased. It is therefore important to carefully design your methods to ensure that the data and information that you collect is accurate and objective.

There is a range of tools that you can use to gather information about the impacts of the project. It is best to use a combination of tools to ensure your data is comprehensive, accurate and reflects the experiences of all groups within the community. However, remember that if you use several tools, if your questionnaires are long, or if you interview a lot of people, you will end up with a large amount of information that you will need to organise and analyze.

Where your research has been limited in some way — for example, due to limited resources or time, or because some community members declined to participate — you need to state this clearly in your report. This helps to build credibility by being open and honest about the possible limitations of your research and prevents other actors from discrediting your results.

Important Point

Consider your team’s skills and experience to collate the data when you select and design your research tools. For example, is there someone on your team experienced in using computer software, such as Microsoft Excel, to organise and analyze large amounts of quantitative, or measurable, data? If so, you may decide to collect measurable information about impacts by a significant proportion of households. For example, you might collect data on the amount of land lost to the company and the amount of income lost per household.

If your team does not have this capacity, you may decide to only collect qualitative, or descriptive, information and to keep your sample size, or the the number of people you interview, relatively small. For example, you may decide to ask key persons and a small sample of households that have experienced serious impacts to describe the effects on their livelihoods and food consumption. The most interesting reports contain a combination of quantitative and qualitative information.

Data collection tools

Some of the main types of data collection tools you could use include: participatory mapping, key informant interviews, household or individual surveys, and focus group discussions.

  • Participatory community mapping can be a helpful exercise. You may wish to do this first, before conducting interviews. Key informants and others with knowledge about the village should be invited to participate. Ask participants to draw the main parts of the village, including its boundaries and main landmarks, on a flipchart. Ask them to draw different types of land uses on the appropriate parts of the map. Next, ask them to mark the boundaries of the project’s concession area to show where this overlaps with the village or community resources. This visual process can help both the research team and community members to understand the geography of the project and how it is affecting their village.

Below is an example of a participatory map drawn by a community. For a case study involving participatory mapping, please see Box 8.

  • Key informant interviews are used to gather information about the community and impacts of the project. You might interview village elders, community leaders or organisers, local NGO staff working with the community, or even local government officials. These interviews are usually in-depth and generally aim to collect qualitative data — in other words, descriptive information that captures the project’s impacts and the community’s situation.
  • Household or individual surveys are used to collect in-depth information about impacts as experienced by people in the community. Similarly to key informant interviews, these usually aim to collect qualitative data to describe the impact of the project on the community. However, depending on how you structure the questions, you might also be able to collect quantitative data. For example, if you have open-ended questions, respondents may give more detailed responses. If you have closed-ended questions, respondents will usually give a simple yes or no answer, or a number or ranking, such as severe, quite severe, positive, very positive. These closed-ended questions can be used to collect quantitative data.


You should pay special attention to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups within the community, such as the disabled, elderly or minorities that experience discrimination.

Make sure that you clearly explain the process you used to select the interviewees in your description of the data collection methodology in your report. The more people you interview from different households, community groups and demographic backgrounds, the greater the chance that your data will be regarded as credible and an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. If you are analyzing whether human rights or other standards have been violated, it is important to find out about the worst issues and impacts experienced by people within the community. This means that you should intentionally identify and interview people who have suffered losses or negative impacts that may amount to violations.

  • Focus group discussions are another way to gather information about a project’s impacts. Some impacts are communal in nature and are best described in a group setting using open-ended questions. The questions aim to facilitate discussion among the group about particular issues and impacts. Interesting points can arise in a group discussion that are not always gleaned from individual household interviews.


Focus group discussions are useful for ensuring that impacts on women and children are recorded. In communities where men tend to dominate, separate women’s group discussions are an effective way for ensuring that women’s voices are heard. Focus group discussions are also useful for gathering information about distinct impacts of the project on minorities or marginalised groups, or on people with disabilities.

Although you should prepare some questions that get people talking about the right topics, you should also be prepared to ask unplanned follow-up questions to probe into unexpected or interesting issues that arise during the discussion. Do your best to politely encourage quieter participants in the group to share their thoughts. It is best to keep the number of participants to less than 12, so that everyone has an opportunity to express their views and experiences. It is particularly important to designate a separate note-taker in your research team to record what is said during the focus group discussions. This will allow the interviewer to concentrate on facilitating the discussion.

Box 8: Case Study

Conducting a human rights impact assessment in Ratanakiri, Cambodia: Using participatory mapping

In several of the villages being interviewed, there was more than one large-scale plantation in the vicinity affecting the communities’ resources. In such cases, it was difficult to separate which impacts were caused by which companies.

To deal with this issue, the research team facilitated participatory community mapping before using the other tools. At least five people in the village who were familiar with local geography and were most knowledgeable about the company’s activities participated in the mapping exercise. They were asked to mark on the map all types of land-use patterns (farmland, forest, streams/rivers, grazing land, burial ground, sacred sites and residential areas) and infrastructure (wells, school, roads and the community center) in the village. They were also asked to point out each company-owned plantation and their boundaries.

Besides helping to understand the land-use patterns and infrastructure in each village, community mapping provided clarity about the location of the company’s plantations compared to the various parts of the village. It also helped participants and interviewers differentiate losses and impacts caused by each plantation. Interviewers used the maps to explain to villagers that they should focus on the Vietnamese company’s plantation when answering questions during interviews. Villagers were then able to attribute particular losses to the investment project assessed, as opposed to plantations owned by other companies. However, due to the cumulative nature of the impacts on food, livelihoods and culture from all the large-scale agribusiness activity in the area, it was not always possible for these to be clearly attributed to a single source.

To read more about this case, see chapter 3 of Human Rights Impact Assessment: Hoang Anh Gia Lai’s Economic Land Concessions in Ratanakiri, Cambodia.

Designing a Questionnaire

Your team will need to prepare a list of questions for each data collection tool being applied. Your questions should be designed to collect in-depth information about the main issues and impacts set within your assessment framework. When developing your list of questions, start with each part of your assessment framework and think of the key questions the research team will need to ask in order to find out whether specific human rights, laws or standards have been breached.

Although the issues that you are investigating will be the same across all data collection tools, the ways you ask the questions will be different. For example:

  • When interviewing a key informant you might ask, “Has your community experienced a change in the amount and quality of food that it has access to because of the company’s project? If so, how has it changed, and why?”
  • When interviewing individual households or families, you might ask, “Before the project began, how many meals did your household normally eat each day?” You might also ask, “Now, how many meals does your household normally eat each day? Has the quality of food changed? If so, how?”
  • When conducting a focus group discussion, you might ask more open-ended questions, such as, “Describe any changes that your families and community have experienced in the food you eat since the company arrived.” As the discussion evolves you can help steer it in a particular direction, while also keeping the discussion to the point.


Questions should not be leading. You should not assume particular positive or negative impacts, but instead ask neutral questions. For example, start by asking whether and how things have changed, rather than what the negative impacts have been.

Conducting and Recording Interviews

In addition to taking written notes of respondents’ answers, it is important to record all of your interviews and discussions so you can check and clarify information that you have missed in your notes. It is also important to have recordings so that if anyone challenges your data, you have proof of what was said during the interviews. Audio recorders are inexpensive and easy to use and are a worthwhile investment for conducting research. Many smartphones also have a recording function. Recordings will also allow you to find good quotes from interview respondents to use in your report.

Make sure you ask the people participating for their consent to record conversations. Let them know that you will not publish their identities unless they consent. If they do not want to be publicly identified, you will record their names for your own verification purposes only, and you will not make them known to anyone outside of the research team. If someone does not agree to being recorded, you must respect their wishes.
During your visits to the community and to the project site, take photos if possible. Visual evidence is very effective at informing the audience and influencing your advocacy targets. If possible, you can also record interviews by video camera that show impacts of the project. Make sure you ask people for their consent to photograph or film them and explain to them how the photo or film will be used. People may be concerned that if their identities are revealed to governmental officials or the company, they will suffer reprisals. Err on the side of caution if this is a concern, and respect the wishes of those who do not want themselves, their families, or property filmed or photographed.

Box 9 below shows a table used to record answers regarding the human rights impact of a rubber plantation in Cambodia.

Step 4: Organize and Present Your Data

Once you have completed your data collection, you will need to organise your data. This process will depend on the type and amount of information collected by the team.

If your team includes experienced researchers with access to software, this process could involve entering the data into the program, which can then derive various types of statistics. If you collected only qualitative data from a smaller sample size, this process may simply involve reading through your notes and listening to interviews, marking and separating information about each issue and impact, and then describing or summarizing the information under the headings in your assessment framework.

Use your assessment framework to organize your information. This will allow you to easily structure your report in a logical way. Box 10 contains a sample structure used for a human rights impact assessment report.

Inserting direct quotes from affected people, case studies that describe an individual or a family’s particular experience, and photos are great ways to make the report more interesting and informative and to ensure that voices from the community are heard.

Important Point

Remember that you may need to omit or change names of individuals or families in order to protect them from possible reprisals. However, you should reference the place and date of interview, unless this information could put people at risk. Make sure you obtain the informed consent of any individuals who are identified or identifiable in the report.

If you are using statistics, inserting graphs, charts and tables can make the report more visually interesting and easier to understand. Maps of the area and of the village can also be very helpful to the reader.

Box 10: Case Study

Human rights impact assessment of rubber plantations in Ratanakiri, Cambodia: Structure of report

There are several different ways you can structure your report. This assessment was structured as follows:

Chapter 1: Introduction

Describes the context and background, including general information about the affected communities and the company and its project, as well as the purpose of the impact assessment and the structure of the report.

Chapter 2: The Assessment Framework

Describes why each human right and national law was selected for the framework as well as the nature of the obligations of each responsible actor.

Chapter 3: Research Methodology

Describes the study site and villages interviewed, the data collection methods and challenges faced during the research.

Chapter 4: Impacts on the Right of Self-Determination

Describes findings on free, prior and informed consent and loss of lands and resources, and ends with an analysis of compliance with the right of self-determination and relevant Cambodian laws.

Chapter 5: Impacts on the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living

Describes findings on impacts on food and livelihoods, including jobs on the plantation, and ends with an analysis of compliance with the right to an adequate standard of living.

Chapter 6: Impacts on the Right to Health

Describes findings on physical and mental health, and ends with an analysis of compliance with the right to health.

Chapter 7: Impacts on the Right to Practice Cultural and Spiritual Traditions

Describes findings about destruction of sacred sites, obstruction of traditional livelihood practices, and influence of outsiders, and ends with an analysis of compliance with the right to practice cultural and spiritual traditions.

Chapter 8: Access to Remedy

Describes problems with the court system in Cambodia and findings about attempts of communities to complain and seek remedies and the responses they received, including both compensation and threats. The chapter ends with an analysis of compliance with the right to effective remedy.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

Briefly summarises the assessment’s overall findings and the broader lessons from these findings.


Contains a general recommendation to all responsible actors to use the impact assessment findings to develop a remediation plan, and then specific recommendations to each responsible actor – the Government of Cambodia, the Government of Vietnam, the company and its investors – corresponding to the nature of their obligations under the assessment framework.

To read the report, see A Human Rights Impact Assessment: Hoang Anh Gia Lai’s Economic Land Concessions in Ratanakiri, Cambodia.

Step 5: Analyze Compliance

For each section of your report, review your data and analyze whether it shows violations of the relevant human rights, laws and standards in your assessment framework.

Rather than just making a finding that the project has not complied with a particular standard, analyse how the right, law or standard was violated, pointing to specific aspects or provisions. Try to attribute responsibility to particular actors. For example:

  • If you find a violation of a particular human right, the company’s action may have directly caused the violation, while a responsible government authority may not have taken measures to prevent the company from taking those actions, failing in its obligation to protect against human rights violations by third parties.
  • If you find that a particular section of a national law or regulation was breached, note who had responsibility for complying with that provision.
  • If you find that a particular part of an International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard was not met, responsibility can be attributed to both the company for failing to comply and to the International Finance Corporation for failing to properly supervise its investment.

Remember to also make findings on notable positive impacts or ways in which rights and laws were respected or fulfilled and standards were met. This ensures the report is balanced and not seen as biased.

The conclusions of your analysis will be used in letters, media and complaints. They will serve as the backbone of your evidence-based advocacy campaign.

Step 6: Verify Your Data

Verifying — or fact-checking — your data is essential for compiling evidence and for ensuring that the community is engaged and aware of the content of the report.

Verify your data by presenting the information and findings in your draft report to affected people in a form they can easily understand. Check with them that each piece of information is accurate. Following the verification session, make any necessary corrections and clarifications to your draft. You can also use the sessions as an opportunity to collect any missing information or to obtain additional quotes and case studies.

Consider whether or not it is a good idea to send the draft report to the company and/or government authorities at this stage to obtain their feedback. Although this is an important part of verifying information and ensuring your report is unbiased, you may need to weigh this against security concerns and the likelihood that the company and government will contribute constructively to the fact-finding process.

You should consider whether sending the government and company the draft report will be beneficial or detrimental to your advocacy efforts. If you send them the draft, their communication staff will have plenty of time to influence media coverage of the final report, and this could mean that the launch of the report loses some of its impact. However, if you do not send them the draft for feedback and include their response in the report, they may use this against you by trying to discredit the findings as one-sided.

Step 7: Formulate Recommendations Based on Your Findings

The main purpose of collecting evidence is to support the community in seeking accountability and remedies for harms suffered or anticipated. Setting out clear recommendations to each responsible actor is an important way to make the research useful.

The report should contain recommendations for each advocacy target identified in your investment chain and correspond with their responsibilities under international human rights law, national law and/or standards to which they have committed. If possible, recommendations should also correspond with the degree of responsibility each actor has for the adverse impacts, and the leverage they hold to ensure harms are remedied and the project is redesigned to bring benefits to the community.

Important Point

Recommendations should be realistic for the responsible actor to adopt and should reflect the desired outcomes of the community. Recommendations can be discussed during the validation sessions with the community to ensure that they reflect their aspirations.

Using your report in advocacy

When your report is complete, you should have concrete evidence on which to base your advocacy. There are many ways you can use your report to bolster your advocacy. You can organize a press conference with community representatives to launch the report. You can send a copy of the report to all relevant government agencies, the company and other actors along the investment chain. If there were violations of national laws, you can use the findings as the basis of a complaint to the courts or to other accountability mechanisms, such as the International Finance Corporation’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman, the relevant Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development national contact point or the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council. (For a full discussion of these and other accountability mechanisms, please see here.)You can also use the findings to strengthen your position in negotiations with the company and other responsible actors, and as a basis for formulating remedies.

The following sections explain advocacy options in detail, including how your report can be used in these strategies.

Box 11: Case Study

Human Rights Impact assessment of rubber plantations in Ratanakiri, Cambodia: Findings, recommendations and use in advocacy

The human rights impact assessment found that there were serious adverse impacts on a range of human rights. It found that the failure to seek the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples, and the confiscation of their lands and destruction of forest resources, was a violation of their right to self-determination. The report found that this also led to a violation of the right to an adequate standard of living of many affected people and a loss of sovereignty over their food and livelihood systems. The confiscation and destruction of spirit forest and burial grounds violated the right of communities to practice their cultural and spiritual traditions. The destruction of forests and pollution of streams inhibited traditional activities such as resin tapping, hunting and fishing.

The report also found that affected communities were unable to access effective remedies for these violations. Complaints to local authorities and the company were often ignored or met with threats. In some cases, the company provided compensation, but the community thought the amount was inadequate. In many cases, community members primarily wanted their land back. Many affected people did not complain due to fear of retribution and a lack of information.
After setting out these findings and conclusions, the report laid out specific recommendations to the Cambodian government, the company and its investors. The recommendations to each actor corresponded to the nature of their obligations and responsibilities under international human rights law and Cambodian law. For example, the report recommended that the Cambodian government take steps to bring the company’s land concessions and plantations into conformity with national laws, and to ensure a conducive environment for dialogue between the community and the company. The report recommended that the company immediately stop all harmful activities and engage in a good faith-dialogue with affected communities in order to agree on and implement a set of remedial measures.

The human rights impact assessment and recommendations were sent to the company and several of its investors. It was used in a complaint to the International Finance Corporation’s accountability mechanism. In addition, it was used to strengthen the community’s position in a formal dispute resolution process with the company.

Useful Resources

Getting it Right: Human Rights Impact Assessment Guide by Rights and Democracy

Akwé: Kon Guidelines. Voluntary guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments likely to impact on sacred sites, and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous communities.

Assessing the Impact of Eviction: Handbook by UN-OHCHR and UN-Habitat

Getting Organized

This section provides ideas for strengthening and maintaining community solidarity and working with the community to develop their advocacy messages and demands. It also provides strategies for engaging the first advocacy target: the business managing the project.

Getting Organized

What Is Solidarity, and Why Is It Important?

Community solidarity is the foundation of every successful advocacy campaign against powerful actors. Collective action is much stronger than individuals acting separately.

Governments and companies know that collective action can threaten their power, so they often employ tactics to divide and weaken communities. In cases of land grabbing and forced evictions, for example, government officials and company representatives often meet with each family separately to try to convince them to move away or stop their opposition to the project. They may make a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of compensation and threaten those who refuse. Many individual families in this situation feel intimidated and reluctantly agree to the company’s demands, even if they are not satisfied with the compensation offered.

However, if affected people get organized and insist on negotiating with one voice, it is much harder for the authorities and the company to ignore their collective demands.


Solidarity does not mean that every family in a community has to agree on one single advocacy goal. For example, there may be some families that are happy to accept compensation, as long as it is enough to buy fertile land elsewhere and maintain their livelihoods. Other families may prefer to receive alternative land and housing along with resettlement and livelihood assistance. Others may not want to leave their land under any circumstances. This does not mean that the community cannot be unified. The community can still work together to develop and implement a unified advocacy message that incorporates the interests of different groups.

How to Strengthen Community Solidarity

Some communities will be highly organized and unified when you start working with them. Many indigenous people and other local communities have their own protocols, including customary laws, governance structures and decision-making processes. It is important for outsiders to respect and act according to these protocols. Other communities may be less organised and might have divisions and even conflict. If this is the case, you may need to spend more time working with the community to discuss the issues to improve communication and develop trust and coordination.

Community solidarity can either be strengthened or weakened by the negative impacts of the project. The common problem that people face can unite them, but the stress caused by the impacts on their land and livelihoods and other aspects of their lives can exacerbate intra-community, and even intra-household, tension and conflict. The use of threats or bribes by the company or government can also cause tension and divisions in the community, as some people succumb to the pressure, making others angry that they have weakened the community’s position.

While community organizing is a long and intensive process, there are a few things you can do in the short term to help strengthen and unite the communities you are working with. First, if they don’t already have them, you can suggest that the community selects representatives whom they trust and will effectively present their messages. It is generally a good idea for the community to select a few representatives. This makes it more difficult for one community representative to be pressured by the company or government officials. It is also a good idea to select a mix of people that represent different segments of the community, such as both women and men and minority groups. For more information on community representatives, see Box 12.

Another way to improve community solidarity is to organize regular meetings with the community to discuss the situation, share information, ensure people understand their advocacy options, and give everyone an opportunity to ask questions and express their ideas. At these meetings, the representatives can make sure they understand the various views and interests among the community.

If there are particular households or groups within the community that are less engaged in the process and whose views are not being included, it may be worth visiting them individually to discuss their situation and ensure that they understand their advocacy options. If women are less active in community meetings, try to arrange a separate women’s group discussion.


There will inevitably be disagreements among community members during the time you are working with them. Be patient and try to listen and understand the different views. Try to play a role in facilitating communication so that everyone feels that their views and interests are being recognised and incorporated into the community’s messages and advocacy strategy. Regular meetings and community support can help people feel stronger in the face of threats and resist accepting bribes from the company.

Remind the community that they will have a much greater chance of success if they do not quarrel among themselves and instead work together to fight for their rights. You can even bring inspiring representatives of other communities that have been successful in their advocacy to come and talk to the community about their experience and what it takes to win.

Box 12: Case Study

The roles and responsibilities of community representatives

The main roles of community representatives are to:

  • Organize and facilitate community meetings to discuss the situation and develop the community’s message and advocacy strategy.
  • Be the main point person for the community, by communicating with others, including your organization and other supporters of the community, as well as advocacy targets.
  • Attend meetings on behalf of the community.
  • Inform the community of any new information and developments.
  • Communicate with journalists about the community’s case.
  • Lead and coordinate other forms of advocacy based on the instructions of the community.
  • Report back to the community about what actions they have taken and the results of this work.

A good community representative should:

  • Be honest, responsible and reliable.
  • Be committed to achieving the community’s advocacy goals and willing and able to devote time to this work.
  • Act in the best interests of the community and defend the community’s interests, including different groups within the community.
  • Listen to community member’s concerns and ideas.
  • Be a good communicator.

Developing the Community’s Message and Setting Demands

It is important to hold meetings with the community to develop its message. If you have already conducted an impact assessment, this will be much easier to do, because you will have a good understanding of the project’s impacts and how people want it remedied. The recommendations of the impact assessment report should reflect the community’s messages.

To develop the advocacy message, you will need to discuss the following at community meetings:

  • The latest situation in the community, including the various impacts of the project.
  • What the community wants to remedy the problems or to prevent harms. This could also include changing the design of the project so that the community can receive benefits (see below).
  • The investment chain analysis and the key pressure points in order to decide which actors you will communicate the message to.


The community’s message and demands should incorporate all of the different interests within the community. They should also be realistic. There is no point in sending a list of demands that will be impossible to achieve. It is important to manage the expectations of the community by explaining that they should think about what they want and what their rights are, as well as what they think could be a practical outcome.

Box 13: Case Study

Liberian Community Challenges Encroachment of Land Concession Through Community Solidarity and Clear Demands

In the West African country of Liberia, one group of communities in Grand Bassa county has had success defending their customary land against encroachment by a British palm oil company.

Residents from the Jogbahn clan claim that none of the communities were consulted or gave their free, prior and informed consent for the company’s palm oil concession to expand onto their lands.

Despite reported intimidation, threats and violence against members of the clan, the community remained determined and, together with national and international organizations, secured a meeting with the Liberian president. After the meeting, the president committed to ensuring the rights of the community to their territory, specifying that the company could not expand onto the lands of the Joghban clan without their permission.

In an interview with Real World Radio, Silas Siakor, campaigner at the Sustainable Development Institute, an organization that has provided support to these communities, said that one of the key elements in the successful outcome was unity. “Even though the company made a sustained effort to try to bring in division within the community, they have stood together,” he said. “The community has been extremely united. As a result of that, the resistance has been really difficult to break.”

As a second key element, Silas highlighted the clarity of the community’s demands. They insisted that the company stop the land survey in Jogbahn clan; not clear any more of their customary land; and not expand their oil palm plantation any further onto their customary land.

Friends of the Earth International created a video about this community.


“Small community in Liberia stands strong against land grabbing,” Radio Mundo Real, May 2014: http://www.radiomundoreal.fm/7610-small-community-in-liberia-stands?lang=es

‘Liberian communities overturn Equatorial Palm Oil land grab,’ Friends of the Earth International and Sustainable Development Institute, May 2014: http://www.justforests.org/custom/public/files/media-briefing-on-equatorial-palm-oil-plc-final-06.05.14.pdf

‘UK’s Equatorial Palm Oil accused of human rights abuses in Liberia,’ Global Witness, 19 December 2013: https://www.globalwitness.org/archive/EPO/

The community’s message and demands may be specific or general. For example, the community may state that it wants the project to be stopped, or that it wants land to be returned. In other situations, the message may be that the company must suspend the project activities and enter into negotiations with the community to reach an agreement to remedy negative impacts and prevent future harms.

The community’s message and demands will be used in communications with the company managing the project and other advocacy targets along the investment chain, as well as in the media and other forms of advocacy.

While messages and demands can evolve over time, and the community may decide to make compromises on its demands in a negotiation, advocacy is more likely to be successful if the message is clear and consistent. It is therefore important to take the time to work with the community to develop clear advocacy goals that everyone agrees with — and a message that reflects these goals. It may take more than one meeting to develop the community’s message.

Important Point

In addition to demands about remedying or preventing harms, the community may also want to try to influence the way the project is designed, so that they can receive development benefits.

For instance, a large hydropower dam might be exporting electricity to a neighboring province or foreign country. In doing so, the project is not providing one of the primary benefits of the project to local communities, many of whom might lack access to electricity. In addition, the company operating the dam might employ migrant workers from outside the area, thus depriving local communities of jobs and training opportunities. In these cases, local communities do not receive any benefits from the project.

The community may want to try to change this situation so that the impacts of a project are beneficial and/or to ensure communities don’t lose control over their land. This may be a part of the community’s advocacy message. In the case of agriculture projects, there are operating models that don’t involve large plantations that employ workers. Some of these models are discussed in Box 14 below. In order to adopt one of these alternative approaches, the company will need to be convinced of the benefits of an inclusive business model that shares benefits with local communities. Relevant government agencies will also need be supportive.

Box 14: Case Study

Alternative models for agricultural investments: Options and risks

Land-based agricultural investments do not always have negative impacts on local communities – but this all depends on how investments are designed and implemented. Agricultural investment can take many different forms, including forms that involve sourcing from local farmers, rather than taking their land.

These models have the potential to be inclusive and beneficial. However, much depends on the specifics, as collaboration can be exploitative, such as unfair pricing in contract farming that can lead to high levels of indebtedness. These models need to be designed in consultation with local communities to be successful for both the company and communities. The risks and opportunities need to be assessed for each particular circumstance, and the community should first get advice from people with experience in using or researching these types of arrangements.

Two examples of alternative models are:

Contract farming: Under contract farming arrangements, local farmers grow and deliver agricultural produce to the company. Generally, the farmers and the company enter into a contract that specifies the type, quantity and quality of the produce that will be delivered by an agreed date. The company agrees to buy all of the produce, as long as it meets the quality standards, at a specified price. The company typically provides the farmers with upfront inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and technical guidance. The company might also provide local farmers with a loan to purchase any other inputs they need. The cost of all of the inputs and the loan that the company gives the farmer is deducted from the final purchase price. In some successful cases, farmers negotiate contracts and deal with the company through a farmer association or cooperative. In some cases, a company-owned plantation is supplemented by contract farming arrangements on nearby land owned by local communities.

Contract farming can be beneficial if the farmers are able to make a good profit by cultivating and delivering the produce on the agreed terms and selling it for more than the cost of all the inputs. However, there have also been disastrous experiences with contract farming, where farmers received low prices and ended up accumulating considerable debt and eventually losing their land. The more promising experiences involve effective farmer organizations and meaningful consultation and negotiation between the company and farmers.

The terms of the contact need to be carefully negotiated and drafted to ensure that the company cannot seize the farmers’ land if they are unable to deliver the agreed produce. Instead, the company and the local farmers should share the risk of a bad crop for reasons that are beyond the control of the farmer, such as a pest infestation or drought. It is generally also a good idea to keep sufficient land for gardens for household consumption and integrate traditional livelihood systems, to the extent possible. Communities should seek their own legal advice before entering into any contractual arrangements with companies.

Lease contracts: Where a community owns a large area of land, including under their customary tenure system, it may decide to lease a proportion of it to the company in exchange for ongoing rental payments and/or a profit share from the produce sold. This will usually only be possible where the land rights of the community are recognized under the law, so that the company is assured of the security of the lease.

Arrangements that are based only on a profit-sharing model can be risky for farmers. For example, if the company makes no profit (or conceals them) then they get the land for free. In capital-intensive investments, it may take a long time before the project becomes profitable. Some crops take time to mature. For example, rubber trees must grow for five years before they are ready to be tapped.

Community members should be aware that unless they structure the lease agreement otherwise, they may not be able to access and use the land for a very long time. Communities should also be careful to ensure that under the agreement payments increase over time for long-term lease arrangements. In some cases, the company can provide employment opportunities and other benefits, such as infrastructure development and skills training, to the local community, and it may be possible to include these in the contract.

Whatever model is chosen, local people must have a voice from the very beginning, and they must be in a position to make free and informed choices.


Making the Most of Agricultural Investment: A Survey of Business Models that Provide Opportunities for Smallholders,” IIED and FAO, 2010.

FAO Contract Farming Resource Center.

Engaging Advocacy Targets

Once the community’s message is ready, it is usually a good idea to first communicate directly with the business managing the project and/or its parent company.


Making a good-faith attempt to address the grievances directly with the business or other actor along the investment chain is required as a first step in the advocacy process. Communities should do this before filing complaints with grievance and accountability mechanisms. It is usually also a good idea to try communicating directly with the business or other actor before using other forms of advocacy.

Start with a Letter or Email

Often the best method for initial communications is through a letter or email, so you can clearly set out all the important information to support your argument and demands. The community may ask you to help prepare a letter or to write and send a letter from your organization on the community’s behalf.

The letter should include:

  • Who you are and whom you are representing. You should explain that the community is affected by the business’s activities.
  • The main problems faced by the community as a result of the business’s activities. If you have already prepared your impact assessment, you can include a summary of the main findings. (You may want to attach the report as an annex and invite the business to comment on it. Alternatively, you may decide to wait to present the report at a meeting.)
  • If the business has violated laws, policies or standards that it has committed to, you can include a summary of this analysis in your letter.
  • The community’s message. You may decide to include the list of community demands, or you may decide that in the circumstances it is more strategic to simply request a meeting in order to discuss the situation and how to resolve the community’s grievances.
  • A request for a meeting with the business and/or parent company.
  • A deadline for a response. Sometimes it can be strategic to mention in the letter what you will do next if you do not receive a satisfactory response from the company by the deadline. Possible consequences include notifying investors or buyers connected to the company, publicizing the problems through the media, or submitting an official complaint to a grievance mechanism. However, it is also generally a good idea to try to keep things cordial at this stage, so that the business managers are more likely to engage in a constructive dialogue rather than become defensive.

If there is no adequate response to your letter by the deadline that you set, the next move could be to send similar letters to relevant government agencies or key actors along the investment chain based on your analysis of pressure points. For example, if you have identified a multilateral development bank, such as the International Finance Corporation, or a major private investor that is bound by certain policies or standards and could have considerable influence over the business managing the project, you may decide to send a letter to this actor next.

Make sure that you clearly set out your understanding of the actor’s relationship to the project. You should also mention the relevant policies or standards that you believe have been violated and summarize the main findings of your impact assessment. Again, attach your impact assessment if possible.

Prepare for the First Meeting

If the business managing the project or one of the other actors along the investment chain agrees to a meeting, you will need to work with the community to prepare. First meetings can be intimidating. Often, community representatives have never attended a meeting like this before. They may feel sensitive about the power imbalance between themselves and the company or financial institution.

It is important to make sure that community representatives are prepared to explain the community’s situation and present their message. If possible, you should also be prepared to give a presentation of your impact assessment findings. You also need to decide with the community whether the representatives should present all of the community’s demands in the first meeting or if it would be more strategic to try to get the company to agree to a structured negotiation or mediation process first. This will depend on the circumstances, including the complexity and magnitude of the impacts and the expected responsiveness of the business. If you are meeting with an investor or buyer only, and not the business managing the project, the purpose of the meeting will usually be to convince the investor or buyer to persuade the business to change its behaviour. Your preparation for the meeting should reflect your objectives.

Important Point

You can also ask questions at the meeting in order to obtain more information about the business, its operations and plans, the investors and buyers, and the relationships between these actors. The business may or may not be willing to answer your questions, but it can be helpful to prepare a list and try to obtain as much information as possible.

Meetings may take place in the company’s (or investor’s or buyer’s) office. Alternatively, the community may prefer to invite company representatives to their village to hold the meeting. The community may feel more comfortable holding the meeting on their territory. This would allow the company representatives to come and see for themselves the community’s circumstances and the impacts they are facing. A third option is a neutral venue, for example an NGO office or a private meeting room in a hotel or restaurant.

The community will also need to decide how many community members should join the meeting. They may decide that only the community representatives should go, or that several other people may want to join. A large presence of the community can increase the community’s confidence and be effective for a first meeting, even if not everyone has an opportunity to speak. Too many people, however, can make the meeting unmanageable.

Consider who else you would like to invite to join the meeting to increase the community’s confidence and power. For example, there may be other civil society organizations that could provide support to the community.

It may also be a good idea to suggest to the company that you use a neutral facilitator for the meeting. A facilitator can be helpful if you think the company will try to intimidate the community or not listen to what the community has to say. A neutral facilitator should be someone who both the community and company trust and respect. The facilitator does not make any decisions or give advice to either party. He or she sets the meeting agenda in consultation with both parties, ensures the meeting runs smoothly and that both parties have a fair opportunity to talk. The facilitator should also help the parties agree on next steps at the end of the meeting.


Before the meeting, you should think about what your next advocacy move will be if the meeting is not successful. If you know what your advocacy options are and have a plan for your next move, you will feel more confident in the meeting. Depending on how the meeting is going, it may also be strategic to let the company (or investor or buyer) know what you will do if they refuse to engage constructively. Warning the company that you intend to go to the media or file an official complaint can be effective but can also make the company more defensive, so you will need to use your instincts.

What Now? Some Next Steps

If you have a successful meeting, you may end up with an agreement to meet again to discuss details of a resolution, or to visit the community’s village together to show the company representatives the impacts. You may agree to embark on a structured negotiation or mediation process. Or even better, the business managing the project may agree to change its behaviour and remedy the harms.

Unfortunately, often it takes more than one letter and meeting to get results. Sometimes the company agrees to a negotiation – sometimes with a genuine intention to do so – but it soon becomes clear that it will not significantly change its behaviour or remedy the harms it has caused.

Often, company representatives believe that after some time, the community and NGOs supporting them will lose energy and confidence and give up the fight. They may also think that you can’t do much harm to them and – after weighing the costs and benefits or doing the right thing – decide that it is better to just ignore you and use their public relations department to deal with any negative publicity about the case until it goes away. This is why you need to be persistent in your advocacy and work with the community to develop a multi-pronged strategy that targets all the strongest pressure points in the investment chain. The next two sections will discuss how you can do this.

Useful Resources

Community Protocols Toolkit.
Namati – Protecting Community Lands Publications.

Accountability Mechanisms

This section explains some of the opportunities and challenges for using courts in home and host countries to hold actors along the investment chain to account and seek remedies. It describes several international and regional human rights bodies that may be used as a part of your advocacy strategy. It then describes how to use several non-judicial grievance mechanisms, including operational-level (company) grievance processes, multi-stakeholder industry initiatives, OECD National Contact Points and the accountability mechanisms of multinational development banks (MBDs). The section also provides information on the effectiveness of each of these mechanisms.

Accountability Mechanisms

Using Domestic Courts

Many advocates look to the courts to seek justice for communities whose land and natural resource rights have been violated by companies. Since the role of the courts is to examine and make judgments on whether laws have been breached and to order remedies, it makes sense that we should be able to turn to them to hold companies accountable.

In cases that involve several responsible actors along the investment chain, legal action may be possible in more than one jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of a court is the territory, person or subject matter over which it has the legal authority to make judgments. For example:

  • It may be possible to sue the business directly responsible for violations in the country where the agriculture investment project and violation are taking place.
  • If the business managing the project or its parent company is foreign, it may be possible to take legal action in the country where the company is registered.
  • It may be possible to take legal action against banks that loan money to the business or parent company in the countries where the lenders are registered.
  • It may be possible to take legal action against investors in the business or parent company in the countries where the investors are registered.
  • It may also be possible to sue buyers that have purchased the product cultivated on the plantation. It may be possible to bring legal action against a buyer in the country that is importing the product.

If litigation is possible in a jurisdiction with strong rule of law and an independent judiciary, it can be the most effective form of advocacy. If the community wins the case in court and the judgment is enforceable, even if the community is in another country, the company involved will be legally required to comply with the court order. Sometimes, just commencing litigation will place enough pressure on the company to agree to enter into negotiations to try to settle the dispute to avoid a full court hearing and risk losing the case.

The ability to use the courts, however, will differ in each jurisdiction and can often be quite challenging. Some of the obstacles include:

  • Political interference and corruption in courts in many countries where agricultural investments are violating the rights of local communities;
  • Weaknesses or gaps in laws and regulations governing the activities that have caused human rights violations;
  • Lack of legal liability or responsibility under the law of lenders, investors and buyers, even though they make the agribusiness projects possible and receive a portion of the profits;
  • Difficulty of attributing legal responsibility to one member of a corporate group, such as a parent company, for the activities of another part of the group, such as a subsidiary, when they are registered as separate legal entities.
  • Jurisdiction challenges of using the courts in countries where the business or its investors and buyers are registered. Many courts take a restrictive view of the extraterritorial — or overseas — reach of a country’s laws or a court’s jurisdiction. They may reject a case because the wrongdoing occurred in another country.
  • Lengthy court processes that can take many years to reach a judgment, which if favourable to the community might then be appealed by the company.

Another major challenge is the high cost of using the courts. Some lawyers are willing to provide legal advice and representation for free (known as pro bono) or on a “no-win no-fee” basis, meaning that the lawyer is only paid if the suit is successful in court or an out-of-court settlement is reached. However, even when you are able to find a lawyer willing to represent the community without charging any upfront fees, there are many other costs involved, such as travel, gathering evidence, court fees and hiring expert witnesses. In many courts, if you lose the case the judge may order you to pay the legal fees of the other party, which can be an enormous sum.

If, after conducting research, you believe that your case is strong and it may be possible to use the courts despite these challenges, there are several organizations that you can contact to get free legal advice. In addition to legal aid organisations in your own country, the following organizations may be able to provide you with legal advice or connect you with lawyers willing to provide pro bono advice:

Box 15: Case Study

Seeking justice for sugarcane land grabs: Transnational legal action in the UK courts

In recent years, the Cambodian government has leased vast tracts of land to private investors for industrial sugarcane plantations. These land concessions often overlap with land used by small-scale farmers, leading to their forced displacement. Some of the concessions have involved violent forced evictions, with villages burned to the ground by the Cambodian military in collusion with the companies. Villagers who have protested against the land seizures have been thrown in jail.

One of the companies that owns a sugarcane plantation in Cambodia is a Thai company. A British company signed a multi-year agreement to buy all the sugar from the Thai company’s plantations in Cambodia.

The NGOs supporting the farmers helped them to obtain advice and representation for legal action in the UK High Court. A British law firm, operating on a pro bono basis, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the farmers in the court against the British company for violating the law of conversion. The law firm argued that the company wrongfully profited from goods produced on land that was improperly taken from the farmers. The farmers sought compensation equivalent to the value of the sugar produced on their land.

Even though the land seizures occurred in Cambodia and the main company involved was registered in Thailand, the UK High Court accepted jurisdiction over the case because the sugar was imported into the UK by a British company.

Human Rights Mechanisms

If a business violates human rights, you could consider using international, regional and/or national human rights bodies as a part of your advocacy strategy. These bodies generally focus on the human rights obligations of governments, including all government agencies and officials (referred to as states under international law). These bodies may be able to address the failure of relevant governments to protect against human rights violations committed by businesses. Some may also be willing to address the human rights responsibilities of businesses.

UN human rights bodies that you could use for your advocacy include:

  • Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, which are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights themes or country-specific issues. These human rights experts can send letters and urgent appeals to governments or other actors, including companies and development banks, to bring alleged violations to their attention. You can submit a complaint about a human rights violation to the relevant thematic expert — including the right to food, adequate housing, or indigenous peoples — explaining all of the important facts and requesting that they send a letter to the business managing the project, and/or one or more of the other key actors along the investment chain.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has general information on communicating with these thematic experts. It also has contact details for the the thematic experts, as well as those who focus on specific countries.

  • Human Rights treaty bodies, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee, which are made up of experts from around the world. You can use these bodies in two ways:
    1. States that have ratified or acceded (formally agreed) to human rights treaties are required to report on their compliance with the treaty obligations to the corresponding treaty body every few years. For example, states that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are required to report to the corresponding committee on the situation in their country regarding, for example, the rights to an adequate standard of living, education and health. States that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are required to report to the Human Rights Council regarding rights to, for example, privacy and freedom of expression.While it is governments that must report to the committees, civil society can also provide information, including by submitting parallel reports about the human rights situation or specific cases of human rights abuses. When the country in which the human rights violation occurred reports to a relevant treaty body, you can consider submitting information about your case. It is also possible to submit information about the case when the home country of a key actor along the investment chain is being reviewed by a relevant treaty body. Make sure to clearly explain the connection between the human rights violation and the failure of the home country government to regulate the overseas activities of the company. The treaty body may then address the issue or case in its review of the country and refer to it in its concluding observations, which you can then use to bolster your advocacy.
    2. If the state has signed up to the Optional Protocol of the the ICCPR or ICESCR, you can submit a complaint, called an individual communication, to the relevant treaty body about the specific violations by the state of its treaty obligations in your case. If the committee decides the complaint is admissible, it generally considers the complaint on the basis of written information by the complainants and the government. If the committee decides that the state is in violation of human rights recognised in the treaty, it asks the government to provide information within a set time period about the steps it has taken to give effect to its findings and recommendations to remedy the violation.

You can find out more information about the Human Rights Commission and about the CESCR on their respective websites. You can find out if the relevant country is a party to ICCPR, ICESCR and the Optional Protocols here.

  • The Universal Periodic Review, under which the human rights records of all member states of the United Nations are reviewed every few years by members of the Human Rights Council, which includes other states. NGOs can submit information through a report, which is considered during the review and may influence the outcome report, including the recommendations. You can find out more here.


These bodies can make critical findings, comments or recommendations about human rights violations that you could use in your broader advocacy strategy. However, they do not make binding and enforceable decisions. Consider the likely responsiveness of the government and other actors along the investment chain to a critical finding by a UN human rights body in deciding whether or not it is worth the effort and resources to pursue this as part of your advocacy strategy. Review your the pressure point analysis you have done on Worksheet 3 to help you decide.

In addition to human rights organizations in your own country, the following international organizations and networks may be able to provide advice and assistance in using UN human rights bodies:

Box 16: Using National and Regional Human Rights Bodies

Many countries have national human rights institutions, some of which are mandated to investigate individual complaints about human rights violations. Some of these national bodies can only investigate complaints against government agencies and officials. Others, such as the Thai Human Rights Commission, have the power to investigate complaints against companies registered in their jurisdiction, including the overseas activities of those companies (See Box 22 for more information.)

Research the mandates, effectiveness and track records of the national human rights institutions that may be relevant to your investment chain to decide whether it’s worth filing a complaint. You will also need to check if the institutions have the power to consider violations of the particular human rights that have been breached in your case. Most have their own website, which will provide you with information about their mandate.

Africa, the Americas and Europe have regional human rights courts and commissions that may be worth using as a part of your advocacy strategy. Individuals and communities can file complaints to these courts to seek justice and remedies for human rights violations committed by a country. This can include violations that government agencies and officials allowed to occur or failed to prevent. It’s generally necessary to first try resolving the grievances at the local or national level, such as in domestic courts. You can find more information about regional human rights bodies at the International Justice Resource Center.

Non-Judicial Grievance Mechanisms

As explained in the previous section, it can be very difficult for aggrieved communities to seek justice and hold companies accountable through the courts or by using human rights bodies. Moreover, development banks such as the World Bank Group have legal immunity in almost all jurisdictions, meaning that they usually cannot be sued in the courts for wrongdoing that causes harm.

In response to pressure from civil society groups that have highlighted these significant accountability gaps, some companies, industries and development banks have developed internal grievance and accountability mechanisms. These mechanisms are generally established with the purpose of providing an accessible avenue to resolve grievances for communities who have suffered harms, or anticipate harms. Given that of these mechanisms were established by the company, industry or development bank they’re supposed to hold accountable, the outcome of using these mechanisms often falls short of a full and effective remedy for the aggrieved community. This section describes several types of non-judicial grievance mechanisms and provides some commentary on their effectiveness.

Important Point

This section does not cover every type of grievance mechanism. Other mechanisms, such as those established by export credit agencies and bilateral aid agencies, may be relevant if you have identified these actors along the investment chain.


If you are representing communities through any of these accountability mechanisms, you should obtain evidence of your authority to represent them and submit this along with the complaint. If the community members submitting the complaint wish to keep their identity confidential from the government and business managing the project because they fear reprisals, make sure you clearly request confidentiality in your complaint.

You should not rely on the information in this chapter alone in deciding whether and how to submit a complaint to a particular mechanism. Always carefully read the information and instructions on the mechanism’s official website. Links to the relevant websites are included in the descriptions below.

Company and Operational-Level Grievance Mechanisms

Since the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights in 2011, more companies have established their own grievance mechanisms to deal with community complaints about their operations. The Guiding Principles set out a framework for governments and businesses with the aim of ensuring that business activities do not violate human rights and that remedies are provided if violations do occur. One of the principles is that “business enterprises should establish or participate in effective operational-level grievance mechanisms for individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted” by their operations. The purpose of company grievance mechanisms is to create a direct channel of communication between aggrieved communities and the company. This ensures that the company can learn about community concerns and address them before they escalate into larger conflicts.

It is worth finding out whether the business managing the project or other companies along the investment chain have their own grievance mechanism, and what the process entails. However, many observers have been critical of these mechanisms for not being fair or effective in providing meaningful remedies. This is not surprising, since the grievance mechanism is established by the company itself and is not independent or impartial. It is a good idea to ask other NGOs or communities with experience using the mechanism if they found the process worthwhile. Take this information into account when advising communities whether or not to use the mechanism to resolve their problems.

Box 17: The International Finance Corporation’s requirement for a project grievance mechanism

If your investment chain mapping has uncovered the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as an investor, the business managing the project may be required under IFC rules to set up a project-level grievance process. (This requirement may in some cases apply to projects that have received support from a financial institution that received IFC financing.) Since 2006, the IFC’s Sustainability Framework requires companies that receive project finance to establish a grievance mechanism in consultation with affected communities if risks of adverse impacts are anticipated. The mechanism is supposed to be equipped to deal with issues that arise in relation to community health, safety and security, land acquisition and displacement, and adverse impacts on indigenous peoples. Under IFC’s policy, the company is required to inform affected communities about the grievance mechanism and how to use it.

If your research shows that the company should have established a grievance mechanism, but the affected community you are supporting has not been told how to submit complaints, this may be a violation of IFC’s policies. If this is the case, the community can submit an official complaint to the IFC’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO) (see below for more information).

The standards of other public and private financial institutions that you have identified along the investment chain may contain similar requirements.

Multi-Stakeholder Sustainability Initiatives and Grievance Mechanisms

Multi-stakeholder sustainability initiatives are associations that bring together companies and civil society, with the purpose of making business activities more socially and environmentally sustainable. They often engage businesses that are involved in the same industry or are producers, sellers and buyers of a particular product or commodity, such as sugar or palm oil. Other multi-stakeholder initiatives engage businesses based on the potential environmental or social impacts of those processes, such as impacts on forests or labor conditions. Businesses typically engage in these initiatives though membership, which usually involves agreeing to follow the initiative’s code of conduct, or through a more rigorous system of certification that verifies that their business practices meet a particular set of standards, including social and environmental standards.

As consumers become more concerned about social and environmental issues, they want to be sure that the products they buy were made without harming the people and the environment. As a result of this consumer demand, companies are increasingly concerned about labeling their products as certified by multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as those described below.

Some of these initiatives have established grievance processes for receiving and addressing complaints that emerge from the operations of the businesses involved. Complaints need to demonstrate that a business’s practices have failed to meet the standards of the multi-stakeholder initiative. In theory, grievances should be resolved through the complaints process, and if the business fails to address them in a manner consistent with the applicable standards, it can be expelled from the multi-stakeholder group and/or lose certification. This can have a serious effect on the business’s reputation and can therefore be a powerful part of your advocacy strategy.

However, by their nature, multi-stakeholder initiatives may be easily influenced by businesses and often fail to function fairly and effectively to address the grievances of affected communities. They are not always willing or able to influence the behavior of large business members, and instead may shield those businesses from negative publicity.


Before you decide to file a complaint with a multi-stakeholder initiative, it is worth asking the advice of other organisations that have recently had experience engaging with it to decide whether it is worthwhile and how to make the best use of it.

The Forest Stewardship Council

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), one of the first multi-stakeholder initiatives, has adopted principles and criteria for sustainable forestry. Businesses that manufacture, process or trade forest products can apply for certification if they meet the principles and criteria. For a consumer product to be labelled with FSC certification, all businesses involved in producing the product must be certified. In theory, this means that the final consumers of the product will know that it meets FSC’s principles and has not had a negative impact on forests.


You can find out whether a business or buyer has FSC certification through this database. The company is also likely to advertise that it has FSC certification on its own website, and will often include the FSC logo on products at the point of sale. If the company does have certification and you believe its operations may have failed to meet FSC’s principles, you can submit an online complaint, called a dispute submission form, available here.

Complaints against companies that have certification are sent by the FSC to the relevant certifying body, which then investigates the complaint. A certifying body is a private agency approved by the FSC to assess whether a company meets the principles and criteria. In addition, the body carries out annual assessments to make sure that a certified company is continuing to meet the principles. Its role is also to investigate complaints and work to resolve the issues. However, there is an inherent conflict of interest in this process, because the certifying body is paid by the company itself. An organization called FSC-Watch is highly critical of the FSC complaints process for this reason.

If the grievances are still not resolved after this process, you can elevate the complaint to the FSC itself, including a complaint against the certifying body if you believe it has not performed its duties according to FSC’s standards.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has adopted standards called the Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production. These principles must be met for palm oil plantations and processors along the supply chain to receive certification. These principles include protections for people and communities that have legal, customary and user rights to land that the company is using for its plantation. They require the free, prior and informed consent of such communities for the use of the land. They also include environmental protections. The principles and criteria are available here:

The RSPO has established a grievance system that accepts complaints about the actions of its business members, including on those related to land, the environment and human rights.


If the community you are supporting is affected by a palm oil plantation, you can find out whether the company or a buyer on the investment chain is a member of RSPO by searching its database.

The complaint should explain the company’s actions and how they fail to meet the principles and criteria or other applicable standards such as the RSPO Members Code of Conduct. The RSPO website provides a complaint form to be filled in and submitted along with supporting evidence, such as your impact assessment. Your complaint should also include information about any previous efforts to resolve the community’s grievances.

Several options are available to try to resolve the grievances through the complaints system, including mediation or investigation of compliance and recommendations made by a complaints panel. In serious cases, the complaints panel may recommend to the executive board of the RSPO that a company’s membership be suspended or cancelled.

Further information about the RSPO complaints system and how to file a complaint can be found here.

In 2013, a number of NGOs, including the Forest Peoples Program, released a study of several cases that found that the RSPO conflict resolution mechanisms had generally not provided tangible results for local communities. In 2014, the RSPO Secretariat commissioned a review of its complaints system in response to these and other critiques. The final report from the review can be found here. The secretariat is currently implementing the recommendations of this review.


Bonsucro is a multi-stakeholder organization aiming to improve the social, environmental and economic sustainability of sugarcane production. Bonsucro has adopted a code of conduct that requires member organizations to implement a set of objectives and principles, which include obeying the law and respecting human rights and labor standards.

Bonsucro has also established detailed criteria that businesses must meet in order for their products to receive certification. The criteria include demonstrating that the company has clear ownership or lease title to the land and water that it uses, and that the resources are not legitimately contested by others. It also includes a requirement for transparent and consultative processes that address impacts of new plantations through environmental and social impact assessments and the establishment of project-level grievance mechanisms.

Bonsucro has established a resolution process to handle complaints regarding a Bonsucro member’s violation of the code of conduct. The process also handles complaints against the awarding of certification for not meeting Bonsucro’s production standards.


If the community you are supporting is affected by a sugarcane plantation, you can find out whether the company is certified by searching the Bonsucro database. You can find out if any of the companies that you have identified along the investment chain are members of Bonsucro, and thus bound by the code of conduct, by looking here.

Complaints can be submitted by email. All supporting evidence must be in English. The complaint must include, among other information, proof that your organisation is a legal entity (if you are submitting it on behalf of affected people); the name of the company affecting the community; and details about the grievance. The complaint must clearly identify the exact article(s) of the Bonsucro standards that have been breached. Note that the violations must have occurred after the company received certification.

You should also include all supporting evidence to substantiate the complaint, including your impact assessment. The complaint resolution process requires written evidence that previous steps were taken to seek a resolution directly with the company. Your complaint must also set out “recommendations on clear, concise and specific actions and activities to correct problems raised in the complaint.”

Bonsucro will send the details of the complaint to the company and provide it with an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Bonsucro makes recommendations, which are sent to both parties, who each can submit an alternative proposal. If the parties cannot agree on a set of recommendations, Bonsucro will make a final decision and advise the company of the corrective action it must take and which Bonsucro will monitor. Both parties can appeal the decision. Final results are published on the Bonsucro website.

For information on how Bonsucro has been used as a part of a broader advocacy strategy to obtain remedies for local farmers displaced by a sugarcane plantation, see Box 19.

Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) brings together stakeholders concerned with ensuring the sustainability of biomaterial production and processing. Organisations can apply to become a member or gain certification if they comply with and implement the RSB’s environmental, social and economic principles and criteria.

Principle 6, for example, requires biofuel operations to ensure the human right to adequate food. Principle 12 requires biofuel operations to respect existing formal and informal land rights and land use rights. Companies must secure the free, prior and informed consent when negotiating agreements or compensation for the use of land for biofuel operations.


Biomaterials include biofuels that can be sourced from products such as sugarcane, corn and soy. You can find out whether the company or a buyer along the investment chain is a member of RSB here and whether it is certified by RSB here.

RSB requires that certified companies, certifiers and accreditation bodies all have their own grievance processes in place. You must first try to resolve the grievance directly with the certified company. If the company process fails to resolve the grievance, communities can file a formal grievance with the certification body or RSB secretariat, depending on the type of grievance. Complaints must be filed within one year of the event that caused the problem.

Among other information, complaints must include basic information about your organisation; details and evidence of the grievance; expected outcomes; and evidence of the steps already taken to resolve the grievance directly. Complainants can request anonymity.

If the grievance is admissible, a grievance manager conducts an investigation or nominates someone to do so, based on written materials from both parties. The investigator may also want to interview you and community representatives and may also want to conduct a site visit. If the company fails to cooperate, the certifying body or RSB can suspend certification. The investigator prepares a written report with findings and recommendations within 90 days of receipt of the formal grievance.  Either party can appeal the findings within 30 days.

More information on submitting a complaint and the process can be found here.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development National Contact Points


The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises define standards for socially and environmentally responsible corporate behavior. The OECD guidelines are recommendations from governments to multinational companies that are operating in or from their countries. They provide guidance for responsible business conduct in a number of areas.

For cases involving adverse impacts on land and natural resource rights, several of of OECD’s guidelines may be relevant, including those on the human rights and the environmental responsibilities of business. Guidelines on due diligence — the company’s assessment of risk and system to address these risks — and information disclosure may also be relevant to the case. Consumer protection guidelines may also be relevant where, for example, the business or another company along the investment chain advertises itself as respecting human rights and has failed to do so.

While the OECD guidelines do not legally bind companies, adhering governments are required to ensure that they are implemented and observed. Among other requirements, governments must establish national contact points to receive and handle complaints, which are called specific instances.


If the business managing the project or another company along the investment chain is headquartered in one of the OECD member or adhering countries, you can bring a complaint to the national contact point in that country. You can find the contact details for national contact points in each country here.

Your complaint should explain how the company failed to meet the standards set by the guidelines and provide evidence to substantiate your claims. You should also explain what outcome the community is seeking and what process with which you would like the national contact point to assist, such as mediation, fact-finding, assessing compliance or issuing recommendations. Here is a template that you can use for writing a complaint.

Once the national contact point receives a complaint, it makes an initial assessment about its validity and relevance to the guidelines. The contact point may require further information from you as it makes this assessment. It then seeks to bring the community and the company together for mediation. If mediation fails, the national contact point may make an assessment of violations and issue recommendations.

The quality and effectiveness of national contact points vary widely and also changes over time, depending on the individuals working there. In some successful cases, complaints have resulted in mediated agreements between companies and communities, including the payment of compensation. In other cases, national contact points have been very slow or simply ignored complaints altogether, and some have shown bias towards the company.

Important Point

It is important to seek the advice of experienced organizations that have submitted complaints to the relevant national contact point to make sure it’s a worthwhile use of your organization’s resources.

OECD Watch, a global civil society network, is an excellent resource for further information and advice on filing a complaint to a national contact point. OECD Watch provides extensive and clear information and an online case check service to assist potential complainants in deciding whether to move forward with the process.

You can find a sample complaint here.

Development Bank Accountability Mechanisms

If you have identified an international development bank in your investment chain, there is a good chance that it has its own accountability mechanism. This can make a strong pressure point. These accountability mechanisms are typically mandated to address complaints from people who claim to be harmed by projects that are financed by the international development bank. In most cases, the accountability mechanisms are theoretically independent from the bank’s management, and some report directly to the bank’s board of directors.

Most of these accountability mechanisms have two functions: 1) a dispute resolution, or problem-solving, function and 2) a compliance function. The dispute resolution function usually aims to mediate or facilitate negotiations between the parties, or to support other voluntary processes to resolve grievances. The compliance function typically assesses whether or not the bank has complied with its own social and environmental safeguard policies, and whether failure to comply has caused or contributed to the harms suffered by the complainants.

Some accountability mechanisms also make recommendations on how to remedy the harms, but it is always up to the board of directors and/or the management to accept and implement those recommendations. In many cases, even where the accountability mechanism makes strong findings of non-compliance and issues a solid set of recommendations that communities agree with, the bank does not effectively implement these on the ground. This section explains the need for strategic lobbying and other forms of advocacy during the accountability process to pressure the bank and its clients to actually take remedial action.

The accountability mechanisms of two prominent development banks are explained in more detail below. Links to information on others can be found here.

The International Finance Corporation’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman

The Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO) is the recourse mechanism for people that have been or fear they will be adversely affected by a project supported by the International Finance Corporation. If you have identified the International Finance Corporation as one of the financiers of the project — either by directly funding a project or indirectly financing it through a bank or other financial institution — you can bring a complaint to the CAO.

The CAO also accepts complaints from people affected by projects that have received political risk insurance (such  as risk of war) from another arm of the World Bank Group called the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. You can search for projects or companies funded by the agency here.

The following discussion focuses on the International Finance Corporation, since complaints against it are more common.

The CAO is very accessible compared to other accountability mechanisms. The eligibility requirements are easy to satisfy, and the CAO provides a short, simple template letter of complaint on its website. The CAO does not require supporting evidence to be submitted along with the complaint.

However, if you submit a clear, detailed and strong complaint with supporting evidence such as findings of an impact assessment, you are more likely to be successful, for several reasons. First, you and the community will be more prepared to engage with the process with clear information about the facts and impacts. Second, like all grievance mechanisms, the CAO process is only as good as the people working there and their understanding of the situation. If you give them clear detailed information, they can do a better job of trying to resolve the problems or assess compliance with the International Finance Corporation’s  policies. Third, the bank often responds to complaints to the CAO with a strong defence of its actions and that of its clients. If you decide to use the compliance function, which is explained below, the bank’s lawyers will write a response to your complaint. If your complaint is well written and backed by evidence, it will be harder for the the bank to refute or discredit the claims.


Your complaint should clearly explain the harms suffered or anticipated due to the International Finance Corporation’s project, along with the remedies and other outcomes sought. If the community wants to use the compliance function of the CAO, it is advisable for the complaint to also set out which policies and procedures have been breached. Remember that the CAO will assess compliance of the International Finance Corporation only — not its clients — so your complaint should refer to failures of the bank to fulfil its responsibilities under the policy and guidelines available here. In general, the applicable policies are those that were in force at the time the International Finance Corporation made its investment.

Complaints to the CAO can be submitted by email.

An example of a complaint to the IFC can be found here.

If your complaint meets the eligibility criteria, first the CAO’s ombudsman will discuss the complaint with all parties to assess whether they may be able to work together to reach a mutually agreeable solution (for example, through mediation) using the ombudsman function. If the community or the company does not wish to enter into a mediation or negotiation process, or the negotiation process is ultimately not successful, the complaint will be sent to compliance to assess whether the bank’s social and environmental policies have been breached and whether a full compliance audit is warranted.

See this section for a discussion of the pros and cons of using the dispute resolution process versus the compliance function.

Further information on the CAO process can be found on its website.

The Asian Development Bank’s Accountability Mechanism

If you have identified the Asian Development Bank as one of the financiers of your project, including indirectly through a financial institution, you may be able to bring a complaint to the Accountability Mechanism (AM). At least two people who are “directly, materially, and adversely” affected by a bank-supported project can submit a complaint.

Before submitting a complaint, the community must make a good-faith effort to address the grievances with the bank’s representative office in your country or the department in charge of the project. This effort, such as sending letters setting out your concerns and holding meetings with the bank, should be described in the complaint letter, or the AM will reject your complaint.


A complaint form and sample letter are available here. While this form is all that is necessary, the more detail you can provide about the harms suffered or anticipated, the harder it will be for the Asian Development Bank to refute your claims. If the community wants to use the compliance function of the AM, it is advisable for the complaint to also set out which sections of the bank’s safeguard policy have been breached. The current Safeguards Policy Statement, adopted by the bank in July 2009, is available here. (Remember that the applicable policies are those that were in force at the time the Asian Development Bank approved its grant or loan).

Complaints to the AM can be submitted via email.

An sample complaint found here.

The complaints receiving officer will ask you whether you choose for the complaint to be dealt with by the Office of the Special Facilitator, the AM’s problem-solving function, which facilitates dialogue or mediation, or if it should be immediately sent to the Compliance Review Panel to assess the bank’s compliance with its policies. Eligibility of your complaint will be then assessed by the relevant function, and they may request further information or a phone meeting in making the assessment.

Further information on the AM process can be found here.

Other Development Bank Accountability Mechanisms

Other multilateral and bilateral development banks also have accountability mechanisms. Below is a list of the mechanisms and where you can find information about each.

  • The African Development Bank’s accountability mechanism is called the Independent Review Mechanism. It handles complaints through two functions: problem-solving (mediation) and compliance review (investigation).
  • The Inter-American Development Bank’s accountability mechanism is called the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism. It has two processes: the consultation phase and the compliance review phase.
  • The European Investment Bank’s accountability mechanism is called the Complaints Mechanism. It carries out both compliance reviews and, in appropriate cases, mediation and other types of collaborative resolution processes.
  • The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s accountability mechanism is called the Project Complaint Mechanism. It has a compliance review function and a problem-solving initiative.

Compliance Investigation or Dispute Resolution?

When using the grievance mechanism of a development bank, you will need to help the communities you represent decide whether to try the dispute resolution function (sometimes called problem solving) or go straight to the compliance review function. Most development bank accountability mechanisms offer both functions. While in some cases the dispute resolution function must be tried first, in most cases the community will be able to decide which one to begin with.

  • The dispute resolution function typically facilitates dialogue or mediation between the community on the one hand and the company and/or the development bank and/or other relevant parties, such as the government, on the other hand. Members of the dispute resolution function can also conduct fact-finding research about the situation. They do not make any judgments about the complaint but instead attempt to facilitate a resolution of the problems by mutual agreement of all parties. The community, company and other relevant parties must all agree to participate in this process for it to work. Any of the parties can disengage from the process at any time, which will bring it to an end.
  • The compliance function acts more like a court, although decisions are not binding. Members of this function assess whether the development bank has failed to comply with its policies and whether this has caused the harms suffered by the community. They typically conduct an initial appraisal of the case to decide whether a full assessment is warranted. If they conduct a full compliance assessment, they review all relevant documentation, conduct interviews, and usually visit the community and project site. They produce a report with findings on policy compliance. In the case of the Asian Development Bank, they also make recommendations, which both parties have a chance to comment on before a final draft is sent to the board of directors. The board must adopt the recommendations for them to bind the bank. In the case of the CAO’s compliance function, the report is sent to the International Finance Corporation (or Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency), which prepares a response that should set out an action plan to address the findings of non-compliance. In both cases, the compliance functions monitor the situation until the issues are addressed. The entire process will usually take more than one year.

Important Point

If the community thinks that it may be possible to negotiate with the relevant parties to reach a solution, then it may be worth trying the dispute resolution function first. If the community chooses this option and hopes to reach an agreement through negotiation to resolve the grievances, it is very important to support the community through this process since there is usually a considerable power imbalance between the parties. You may need to train community members in negotiation skills and support them through the various stages and decision-making processes. (For more information on negotiation training, see here.)

It may be strategic to use other forms of advocacy during the process if the company is not negotiating fairly. Success will ultimately depend on the willingness of the company and other relevant parties to reach an agreement with which the community is satisfied. This is only likely to happen if the company believes that addressing the problems and settling the dispute is in its own interests. This may mean making it clear to the company that you will engage in other forms of advocacy if it does not negotiate fairly. Various forms of advocacy that you can use are discussed in here.

The dispute resolution process is voluntary, so if negotiations fail, or if the community is not satisfied, they can decide to stop the process and request that the complaint be transferred to the compliance function. Your role during a compliance review will be to ensure the community understands the process and to support it during site visits by the compliance panel. You should also provide the compliance panel with any additional information or evidence that emerges.


You should be prepared to lobby the executive directors and/or highest level of management of the development bank for a good outcome once the compliance function has finalized its report. You can ask NGOs experienced in this type of lobbying to help you through this process (see the list below).

It is also highly advisable that you support the community in other forms of advocacy at the same time. Using accountability mechanisms is a slow process. Even if you end up with a strong final report, there needs to be pressure on the development bank to actually implement a plan to resolve the community’s grievances. Since this will almost always require the involvement of the development bank’s client – the business managing the project, its parent company and/or the government – your advocacy should also aim to get these actors to engage constructively in implementing the plan. The next section explains other forms of advocacy that you can use in your strategy.

In addition to organizations in your own country, the following may be able to provide advice and assistance in using non-judicial grievance mechanisms:

Box 18: Case Study

Nicaraguan Sugarcane Workers Pursue Remedy through IFC Ombudsman

In 2008, ASOCHIVIDA, an association of former sugarcane workers in Nicaragua, filed a complaint with the the International Finance Corporation’s CAO. The workers’ former employer had received a loan from the bank two years before in order to extend its sugarcane plantations and build an ethanol plant. The members of ASOCHIVIDA, who at that time numbered 600, were all suffering from an epidemic of chronic kidney disease, which they believed was caused by their working conditions. The Center for International Environmental Law and, subsequently, the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations (known by its Dutch acronym, SOMO) have supported ASOCHIVIDA throughout the process.

After receiving a complaint, the CAO can either try to convene a mediation process between the complainants and International Finance Corporation’s client to try and resolve the conflict or undertake an investigation to determine whether the bank complied with its policies and procedures. In this case, ASOCHIVIDA and the bank’s client agreed to participate in a mediation focusing on two issues: measures to improve the health and social services for those with the disease and their families, and an independent study to determine the cause of the disease.

The mediation began in the 2009. One of the first commitments ASOCHIVIDA secured was a monthly provision of food for two years, which they subsequently succeeded in extending to cover their increasing membership. Those with the disease are unable to continue working and therefore have no way of providing for their families. The food distribution allowed them to meet their basic needs.

Also, among the initial agreements was the selection of Boston University School of Public Health to undertake a multi-year study to determine the cause of the disease. Over the next several years, as the study was under way, ASOCHIVIDA secured additional benefits for its members, including: a microcredit facility and building to use it; new homes with adequate hygienic conditions to receive in-home medical treatment; and educational supplies for the children of those with the disease. Most recently, ASOCHIVIDA secured a donation to significantly improve the health facilities available to their members, which now number more than 2,300.

As of 2015, the cause or causes of the disease were still not completely understood, but Boston University significantly advanced the scientific understanding of it and continues its research in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research found evidence that one or more risk factors are occupational, including heat stress and dehydration.

According to Kristen Genovese, Senior Researcher at SOMO, it is difficult to characterize the results of the CAO process. “It has provided the members of ASOCHIVIDA with improved healthcare and economic assistance. However, the need is much greater,” she said. Genovese also regrets that the process did not succeed in holding the World Bank Group accountable for its role in this situation.

“Throughout the last seven years, the International Finance Corporation has never taken any responsibility for its failures. Worse yet, it misunderstands and mischaracterizes Boston University’s findings in order to justify financing other sugarcane companies in the region,” she said.

This case demonstrates both the potential of a mediation process to secure tangible remedies for aggrieved communities as well as the limitations. For more information, see this report by Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales.

Complementary Advocacy

This section explores some of the different advocacy strategies that can be used in combination with formal accountability mechanisms to increase your chances of success. These complementary strategies include building alliances, direct lobbying of key people and agencies, using the media, and advocating with consumers and shareholders.

Complementary Advocacy


As discussed in the previous section, the various judicial and non-judicial accountability mechanisms available for land and natural resource rights violations all have limitations. That’s why you shouldn’t rely on just one approach. Instead, try to use more than one mechanism, as well as a range of complementary advocacy strategies that target multiple actors along the investment chain that can influence the business managing the project.

Putting sustained pressure on particular targets to achieve a specific objective through a range of advocacy tools and tactics is called campaigning. Key campaigning tactics include:

  • Alliance building
  • Lobbying
  • Media advocacy
  • Consumer advocacy
  • Shareholder advocacy

These campaign tools range from “soft” to “hard,” and they are not always complementary. Soft tools like lobbying can be useful at key points in a campaign. For example, lobbying can help you get past a barrier that is preventing an accountability process from moving forward. Harder tools like media, shareholder and consumer advocacy can be used to impose a reputational and economic cost on companies that are not responsive to softer advocacy approaches and are unwilling to act in good faith to redress harm that they have caused. You need to consider when it is strategic to deploy a certain tools and target certain actors.

Building alliances

For an advocacy campaign to be effective, it is often necessary to work in alliance with other organizations that support your cause locally, nationally and internationally. Building international alliances is particularly important when the investment chain spans multiple countries and continents.

Important Point

No organization can do everything alone, so the more you can work together with other groups or individuals who have particular skills, resources and access to the actors you want to influence, the better the chances are that your campaign will be successful.

For example, if you want to pursue legal action against a multinational corporation in its home country, you will need to reach out to legal aid organizations in that country and ask for their assistance finding a lawyer that can provide pro bono, or free, legal advice and support. If you decide that it’s time to launch a consumer campaign in countries or regions where the company’s products are consumed, then you will need to build an alliance with campaigning organizations that are active in those countries. Closer to home, there may be other organizations or social movements that you can work with to develop an effective, multifaceted campaign. Some local groups may specialize in legal advocacy, while others are skilled in research or community organising.

Build a coalition with organizations and individuals that share common values and goals and that can each contribute something important to the campaign. And remember, successful corporate accountability campaigns often take several years, so make sure that you and your coalition partners are committed to staying active before taking on a case.

Lobbying During the Accountability Mechanism Process

Experience shows that non-judicial accountability mechanisms are most effective when complainants remain actively engaged in lobbying the institutions and other actors involved before and after filing their complaint. Lobbying can take different forms, including letters, face-to-face meetings and events that engage decision-makers directly.


It is often most effective if affected community members do the lobbying themselves with support from allied organizations. As an advisor, you can help community members draft their letters and set up and prepare for meetings. However, it is important that the affected people are at the center of the advocacy. In some situations, solidarity actions can be effective, such as a “sign-on” letter that you can prepare and ask members of your networks to endorse in support of the community’s message.

Some accountability mechanisms, such as the Bonsucro and Asian Development Bank mechanisms, require that complainants first try to address their grievances directly with the operational staff of the institution. Before you help community members file a complaint, make sure that they write to the senior management of the relevant institution outlining their grievances and the actions that they want them to take. Provide a deadline to respond, which will indicate that the community intends to file an official complaint to the accountability mechanism if they don’t get a satisfactory and timely response. Sometimes the threat of filing a complaint can be just as effective, or even more so, than the actual filing of the complaint in getting the institution to take action. If this doesn’t work, you will have the paper trail that you need to take the matter to the accountability mechanism.

Once a complaint has been filed and found eligible, the board of directors of the institution will be notified. At this point, it may be a good idea to write to the board directly to appeal to them to take certain actions, such as withholding new financing for the project until the investigation is completed or the dispute is resolved. They are unlikely to take any action while an accountability process is under way, but by writing to them and placing demands upon them at this stage, you will raise the profile of the case.

In dispute resolution processes, you may find that the company is not negotiating in good faith or is simply unwilling to go far enough in redressing the harm that it has caused. In those situations, it may be necessary to lobby the senior management or boards of the financial institutions, investors, or multi-stakeholder initiatives to put pressure on the company to negotiate fairly.

It’s also possible that the community will be unsatisfied with the way that the accountability mechanism is functioning. As discussed here, not all mechanisms function effectively. You may find that the staff is biased or incompetent, or the process is just taking too long. In these situations, you should try to address your concerns first with the chairperson or the most senior officers of the accountability mechanism. If that doesn’t work, you should write to the board of directors of the institution outlining your concerns.

In the case of a compliance investigation, you should be prepared to lobby the board of directors and/or highest level of management of the institution once the investigation has been completed. It is advisable that you keep the pressure on the institution throughout the investigation, since these processes are slow. Even if you end up with a strong investigation report, there needs to be pressure on the institution to actually implement a remedial action plan to resolve the community’s grievances. If your complaint is against an investor or buyer along the investment chain – and not the business directly responsible for the community’s grievances – that actor will need to pressure the business to engage constructively in implementing remedial actions.

The staff and management of international development banks, commercial banks and other actors along the investment chain are often reluctant to apply serious pressure to their business partners, even if they have violated policies. This is why it is important to communicate with the board of directors, because they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the bank is accountable.. If the board is not responding to your advocacy, then you will need to lobby shareholders or members directly.

  • In the case of international development banks, this means lobbying the finance ministries of the governments that are shareholders.
  • In the case of a multi-stakeholder initiative, you will need to lobby the members of the association.
  • If your target is a multinational corporation, you might try lobbying the government or members of parliament of its home country.

It might not be easy for you to reach these advocacy targets alone, but if you build strong international alliances, you can get support from civil society organisations in the countries where action is needed.

Important Point

What is your key “ask?” The foundation of all lobbying is the key ask of the decision-maker you are targeting. This is the concrete action that you want the actor to take, and it should be formulated to achieve the community’s demand. For example, your key ask of the International Finance Corporation’s board of directors may be to ensure that the bank’s client (the business managing the project) adheres to the Performance Standards and meaningfully consults the affected community. Be clear about your key ask and make sure it is expressed upfront in any letters that you write and at the beginning and end of your meetings. Try to get the decision-maker to commit to taking some concrete actions towards your key ask within a specific timeframe. Then follow up regularly by email or phone to hold them to the decision-maker to her commitment.

Box 19: Case study

Lobbying the Bonsucro Multi-stakeholder Initiative

In January 2011, a Cambodian community submitted a complaint to Bonsucro against one of the founding members of the association. The community had been forcibly evicted for a sugarcane plantation that supplied the company. The complaint alleged that the company had violated the Bonsucro code of conduct by buying sugar that was produced on stolen land and failing to conduct human rights due diligence on its suppliers.

For nearly two years, the Bonsucro grievance process appeared to be stuck. The complainants followed up periodically, but they never received clear information about what was happening with their complaint. They were told only that Bonsucro had been in dialogue with the member company and had requested a time-bound remediation plan from it. Multiple deadlines had reportedly been given to the member, but these passed without any consequences.

Frustrated by Bonsucro’s apparent unwillingness to sanction the member for its failure to engage in the process, a delegation from the community and supporting NGOs, Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International, travelled to London to attend Bonsucro’s annual conference. The conference is attended mainly by Bonsucro members, including many of the leading producers, buyers and sellers of sugar. However, the event is open to anyone who pays the registration fee. The NGOs saw this as an opportunity to increase pressure on Bonsucro.

During a plenary QundefinedA session of the conference, the delegation publicly exposed the member company’s violations of the Bonsucro code of conduct and the failure of the association’s board of directors to take appropriate action. The conference organizers cut off the microphone, but the sugar industry representatives in the room had heard the message. At the end of the session, the chairman of the Bonsucro board invited the delegation from Cambodia to a private meeting to discuss the case and hear directly from the community representative. They were told that the board would be meeting the following day to make a decision about how to proceed with the case.

Shortly after, Bonsucro informed the the complainants that the board had agreed to request that the member company carry out an independent assessment of the fairness of compensation payments that had been made to the displaced families. This proposal was unacceptable to the complainants, because no amount of compensation was fair for land that was forcibly taken from the families. The community demand’s was that the land must be returned. They also demanded a say in the selection of any third-party assessors and in the terms of reference of the assessment.

When another two months had passed with no response, the NGOs wrote to the Bonsucro board and all of the members that had participated in the conference. The letter described the human rights violations and illegal actions carried out by the member company’s suppliers, as well as the impacts suffered by the victims. It then called upon all major companies buying sugar from the member company to conduct human rights due diligence audits of their supply chain and to insist that the member “take the measures necessary to ensure redress for all affected families whose land, homes and livelihoods have been unjustly and illegally appropriated.”

Shortly after this letter was sent, Bonsucro announced in a press release that its board had suspended the member company. The suspension means that the company is unable to benefit from membership privileges, including Bonsucro certification, and its reputation is affected. Bonsucro stated that the suspension would remain in place until the company 1) carries out the third-party review of their supplier’s compliance with the company’s code of conduct, or 2) reaches a resolution of the dispute to the satisfaction of both parties.

This was a major victory for the community. This case study demonstrates the importance of actively lobbying the institution and its members to ensure the grievance process is moving forward.

For more information, please see the Bonsucro board’s decision from July 8, 2013.

Media Advocacy

Media advocacy can be a powerful tool to influence decision-makers in a corporate accountability campaign. But it is important to be strategic about when and how you do it, so that it is beneficial and not detrimental to your campaign.

The first thing to ask is: Who is your target? In other words, which actor are you trying to influence by using the media? It may be the business managing the project, your government or a foreign government, or one of the other actors along the investment chain. Some companies will be more vulnerable than others to media advocacy. If your target is a company with a brand name that deals directly with consumers, it will be the most susceptible to media advocacy. However, if your target is a little-known private equity fund that is less concerned about its public image, then media advocacy may not be as effective.

Choosing your media outlet

Once you have selected a good target for media advocacy, it is important to use media outlets that matter to the actor you are targeting. For example, if your target is a buyer with a retail brand in the United States, then the best media to reach out to will be popular American newspapers, radio and television. If your target is an international development bank or a commercial bank, try to pitch the story to journalists who work for a media outlet that covers financial and business news, such as the Financial Times.



Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are becoming increasingly important tools for advocacy. Evaluate whether the actors you are targeting are paying attention to the social media platforms you are considering using. For example, check whether your target has a Facebook or Twitter account, and if so, how many followers they have.

Timing is key

One of the most important factors to consider when doing media advocacy is timing. If you are having a constructive dialogue with a company or are engaged in sensitive negotiations, it is probably not the right time to criticize that actor in the press. That does not mean you should never do media advocacy when you are engaged in dialogue with a company. If the company isn’t doing what you want it to do or is causing unreasonable delays, and you sense that it needs to feel more pressure, then media advocacy might be effective at this point.

If you are supporting a community in a formal mediation process, you may be asked to agree to certain “ground rules.” These might include refraining from talking to the media throughout the process, so that both parties will feel that they can communicate more freely to try to reach an agreement. If the other party seems to genuinely want to reach an agreement that the community will be satisfied with, it is probably worth agreeing to this condition. Sometimes you can use this as a bargaining chip and say that you will agree to refrain from talking to the media if the company agrees to take certain actions immediately, such as committing to a moratorium on (suspending or stopping) harmful activities, such as clearing a forest. If you engage in media advocacy during mediation, the danger is that the other party will walk away from the negotiations. Assess this risk carefully and decide whether the other party needs to feel the pressure of negative publicity in order to stop harmful activities and negotiate fairly.

Getting the media interested


There are many ways to get the media interested in your issue. All newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and web-based news services need new stories. The key is showing the outlet why your issue is newsworthy and something that its audience should care about.

Whenever there is an important development in your case, such as when you file a complaint or when an investigation report is released by an accountability mechanism, this is an opportunity to get the media interested in covering your issue. There are many other moments that you can link the story to an event that is newsworthy. For example, when a bank on the investment chain releases its annual profit figures, you may be able to use this “news hook” to tell the media about your case and how the bank is earning profits by financing land grabs and deforestation.

When you have a story that you think is newsworthy, you can reach out to the media in a number of ways.

Story Pitch

Email or call journalists or the editors and ask them to cover your story. If you want the media to cover breaking news — a fast-developing story that journalists may only be interested in covering while it’s happening or soon afterwards — then it is best to call reporters before noon in their time zone.

If your story is not breaking news, but you want to get the media to do an in-depth piece on your case, you need to pitch them on the idea. A good pitch will explain why the story is worthy of coverage — and why it should be covered now. You should humanize the story by detailing how people’s lives are being affected. Finally, you should explain how your story fits into wider themes or issues that are newsworthy: such as land grabbing, corruption or trade issues. Note that you should only pitch one outlet at a time, and you should make it clear in your pitch that you’re pitching the idea as an exclusive to that publication.


When communicating with journalists, you should always be brief and to the point. Newsrooms are busy places, and journalists often receive dozens of pitches a day. A pitch should be at most a few short paragraphs, and all of the key information — the who, what, when, where and why — should be explained in the first few sentences.

Press Conference

If you have something new to announce, such as the launch of a campaign, you can organize a press conference to turn your announcement into a news event. Typically, a press conference gathers members of the media in one place, where you would read a statement or announcements and then answer questions from the audience.

You could help the community organize a creative event that will grab the public and media’s attention. Several days before the event, invite your media contacts by sending out a media advisory. This can be a brief email – usually no more than a half page – which includes the key information about your event. You don’t want to include too much information here – just enough to entice journalists to attend.


Press conferences can be riskier than other types of media advocacy, because they are unscripted and unfold in real time. You might face provocative or even hostile questions from journalists, in particular in countries where the media is aligned with the government. Try to anticipate and prepare for difficult questions in advance. When you don’t know the answer, be honest and say so, and offer to follow up later with more information.

Press Release

You can issue a press release to announce something new or comment on a news development, even if you aren’t holding an event.

A good media release should:

  • Be no more than two pages.
  • Have an attention-grabbing headline
  • Get the main message out in the first few sentences or paragraph.
  • Include a combination of facts and figures and good quotes from you or your organization’s staff members, relevant partners and community representatives (if they want to be quoted).
  • Include your contact information and web-links where people can learn more.

If you are holding a media conference, you should prepare a media release for distribution at the event. You can also send out the media release a day or two beforehand, and write at the top ‘EMBARGOED UNTIL’ [insert time/date of the event], which will allow journalists to cover your event on the day that it happens. An example of a media release is provided in Box 20 below.

Letters to the Editor and Op-Eds

If your case has been covered in a recent news article, this is a good opportunity to write a letter to the editor, commenting on the article and providing your own personal or professional insights on the issue. Letters to the editor are generally very short — at most a paragraph — although you should consult the guidelines for each publication. If a news story contained a factual error, a letter to the editor is a good way to correct the record.

An op-ed (opinion-editorial) is an article that makes an argument or describes a personal experience, rather than objectively describing an event or situation. Most media outlets accept op-ed submissions from the public; you should consult the publication’s guidelines for information on how to submit an article.

In an op-ed, you can use your personal experience being involved in the case to advance an argument, such as a how you felt listening to a farmer who was displaced or an indigenous elder who watched a sacred forest being destroyed. Op-eds are longer than letters to the editor, usually around 800 words, although each newspaper has its own policy. A newspaper will be much more likely to publish a letter or op-ed if it refers to a current event or issue, and if you offer a point of view that is unique.

Popular media outlets receive a lot of media releases, letters to the editor and op-eds each day. However, they have limited space in their publications and time in their broadcasts, so don’t be discouraged if your submission doesn’t get picked up. This is especially the case for prominent international media. If an international media outlet whose attention you were trying to get doesn’t respond, try a local newspaper or station.

Important Point

In any interaction with the media, the most important rule is to tell the truth. If you make false or misleading statements, this can undermine your campaign and even get you into trouble with the law. So don’t exaggerate, and let the facts and personal stories speak for themselves.

Box 20: Sample Media Release


For Immediate Release

ANZ bankrolls massive land grab in Cambodia

(Phnom Penh, 22 January 2014) – Two confidential social and environmental audits leaked to the Clean Sugar Campaign indicate that ANZ Royal Bank provided significant financing for a sugar plantation and refinery owned by the notorious Cambodian senator and tycoon Ly Yong Phat. ANZ confirmed its financing of the Phnom Penh Sugar Company in a meeting with campaign and community representatives on Sunday.

At the time ANZ gave the green light for the deal, Phnom Penh Sugar Co. Ltd and its sister company Kampong Speu Sugar Co. Ltd. were tied up in a very public conflict with hundreds of families in the Thpong and Oral districts of Kampong Speu province, where their sprawling 23,000 hectare sugar plantation was established by seizing homes, rice fields, orchards, grazing land and community forests relied upon by local farmers in at least 21 villages.

“It is hard to reconcile financing one of Cambodia’s most high-profile land grabs with the social and environmental commitments that ANZ made when it signed on to the Equator Principles,” said David Pred, Managing Director of Inclusive Development International.

“Lending money to Ly Yong Phat is hardly befitting of a bank that has been repeatedly ranked as the most sustainable bank globally by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. This is someone who has been implicated in violent forced evictions and land grabbing in three provinces, illegal logging and deforestation, child labour, and the use of military, police and the courts to intimidate, arrest and imprison villagers who dared to protest,” Pred said.

“This case serious calls into question the credibility of ANZ’s due diligence process,” he added.

Eang Vuthy, Executive Director of Equitable Cambodia, said: “The 2010 Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment that ANZ appears to have relied upon for its due diligence is a whitewash. Its claim that the living conditions of villagers who were resettled to small plots at the bottom of Pis mountain were either improved or remained the same could not be further from the truth – these families have suffered serious food insecurity since losing their land.

“The assessment fails to mention the hundreds of other families whose farmland, forests and grazing land were forcibly taken by Phnom Penh Sugar and whose livelihoods were destroyed as a result. The 2013 audit’s finding that there is no child labour on the plantations is plain false,” he added.

Natalie Bugalski, Legal Director of Inclusive Development International, said: “ANZ must have been aware of the misery its client was inflicting on communities because this case was reported on regularly in the press. Yet, at the same time, ANZ was touting its environmental and social credentials to the public, projecting an angelic image that could have misled socially responsible investors.”

“ANZ’s shareholders will be left wondering what other dirty deals this bank has made,” she added.

The November 2010 Environmental and Socio-economic Site Assessment is available here.

For further background details, please visit: http://www.inclusivedevelopment.net/what/advocacy/cambodia-anz-backed-sugar-land-grabs/

Consumer Advocacy

One of most effective ways to pressure companies that are not responding to other forms of advocacy is to take your message directly to their consumers and enlist them as allies in the struggle. Consumer advocacy is when individuals or groups of consumers use tactics like publicity, letter-writing campaigns, and boycotts to pressure companies to change their behaviour on particular issues.

Consumers are increasingly becoming concerned about how their products are made, including the conditions of workers and the social and environmental impacts of production. The fair trade movement, which advocates for better trading conditions and higher social and environmental standards for producers in poor countries, has grown rapidly in recent years.

This organised movement consists of hundreds of consumer, importer and producer organizations, as well as standard-setting and certification organisations, which certify and label products that promote sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers and protect the environment. The movement is especially popular in the UK, where many consumers prefer to buy products, including coffee, sugar, tea, bananas and chocolate, if they are certified as “fair trade.”

Rising consumer concern means that companies that sell products directly to consumers are now much more vulnerable to negative publicity and pressure about their social and environmental practices. Companies are aware that bad publicity about their practices, including in their supply chain relationships, can have a big impact on their sales and profitability.

You may want to consider a consumer advocacy campaign if there is a company along your investment chain that:

  • Has the ability to influence the business managing the project to make changes on the ground.
  • Has a visible brand and cares about its public image, such as retail banks that provides personal banking services to customers, food and beverage companies, or supermarket and grocery store chains.
  • Has not responded positively to direct advocacy.

Consumer advocacy will usually be used when trying to influence a buyer company (downstream), but it could also be used with a bank (upstream) if it has a known brand and retail banking business.

The first step in a consumer advocacy campaign is to raise the awareness of consumers about the issues your campaign seeks to address, such as land grabbing, and inspire them to get involved. This can be a daunting task for a small organization that isn’t based in the countries where the target consumers are, so you should look for allies that have a presence in those countries and which specialize in this type of campaigning.

The following international organizations have run consumer campaigns on land rights issues and may be worth contacting:


There are steps that you can take to start building the platform for a consumer campaign. If you are effective, then consumer groups will often reach out to you and offer their support.

You can:

  • Set up a website, blog and/or Facebook page with information about your campaign, which names and shames the companies involved. Check out the website of the Cotton Campaign for ideas.
  • Make a compelling video that exposes the complicity of your advocacy target in causing social and environmental harms and post it to your website and to YouTube. Spread the link through social media. As an example, see this video produced by the Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign.
  • Reach out to the media in the countries where the consumers live and inform them about your campaign, including through a media conference and media release when you launch it.

Make sure that your materials include very clear and specific campaign goals. The goals should reflect the community’s demands, but might also include the broader more systemic issues at hand, such as ending land grabbing by mining companies in your country. The Cotton Campaign, for example, aims to end forced labor of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton industry.

Let consumers know precisely what actions they can take. This could be signing a petition, or writing a letter to the CEO or directors of the company, or even staging a protest outside company offices or stores. Be sure that you provide consumers with a clear message to send in their action and tell them exactly to whom they should direct the message. You can use the online petition sites Avaaz.org or Change.org to get a petition started and mobilize support.

To boycott or not to boycott?

The oldest consumer advocacy tactic is a boycott. This is a call to stop buying the goods and services sold by the targeted company. Traditional boycotts are aimed at getting a company to lose business, which pressures it to make the change that the campaigners are seeking. There are a lot of different opinions about whether boycotts are effective or not, but most observers agree that to make an impact takes a lot of time, dedication and a lot of boycotters!

There is a risk that a boycott will not attract a lot of consumers and that the company will take this to mean that its consumers don’t care about the issue. On the other hand, calling for a boycott can sometimes be an effective way to get the media interested and obtain valuable publicity for your cause. One study, which examined 221 boycotts between 1990 and 2005, found companies were more likely to give in to a boycott campaign’s demand when the issue attracted a great amount of press coverage. The study also found that companies gave in to demands when they feared damage to their reputation, rather than because of the threat of lost sales – though the two are often linked.

Shareholder Advocacy

If the company you are targeting is a mutual fund, pension fund or a company listed on a stock exchange, you may also be able to recruit its investors to help you pressure the company through shareholder advocacy.

Mutual funds collect a pool of money from investors, either individuals or institutions. The fund then invests this money in companies on behalf of the individuals and institutions. Pension funds can be either actively managed — meaning a fund manager makes the investment decision — or passively managed, meaning investment decisions are tied to the performance of a stock market index.

Pension funds collect a pool of money from workers, usually from their salary. The fund invests the pooled money on behalf of the workers. Pension funds must pay out funds to the workers when they retire, so they are generally more heavily regulated by governments than other funds and are likely to make less risky investments.

A public company usually has a large number of shareholders, and their shares are bought and sold on one or more stock exchanges. This means anyone, including the general public, can own part of the company.

There is a growing movement of ethical or activist investors who are working to influence corporate social, environmental and human rights practices. Ethical investors usually buy shares only in companies with good corporate policies and behaviour. Activist investors also buy shares in companies with poor social and environmental records in order to use their rights as shareholders to try to make the company behave more responsibly.

There are also ethical institutional investors, which are organisations that pool large sums of money from their members and invest it on their behalf based on social and environmental criteria. Institutional investors can have considerable influence over company behaviour because of their ability to own a large number of shares. The more shares an investor has, the more votes it gets on issues raised at shareholder meetings.

Activist investors can use several methods to influence companies.

One of the most powerful tools that activist investors have at their disposal is the introduction of a shareholder resolution. This is when shareholders make a formal recommendation to the company and put it to a vote of all shareholders at the annual general meeting. Rules for shareholder resolutions are different in every country. In the United States, resolutions can only be introduced by shareholders with a meaningful stake in the company (defined as 1 per cent of all outstanding shares or $,2000 worth of shares, held for at least one year prior to the resolution submission deadline). In the United Kingdom, resolutions can be put forward by shareholders with a 5 per cent stake in the company or by a group of at least 100 shareholders that each hold at least £100 worth of shares.


Introducing shareholder resolutions is a great way to get an issue on the agenda of the company and its investors. It also provides a good opportunity to attract media attention to your issue, particularly if the resolution is introduced by a well-known investor.

The last resort in shareholder advocacy is divestment, which is when a shareholder sells its stake in a company. This should usually only be considered when other methods fail. After all, if your allies sell their shares in the company, then you will lose the opportunity to influence the company from within. If all else fails, and your shareholder allies are unable to persuade the company to change its behaviour or take the actions that you want it to take, then you might consider calling upon them to divest.


Divestment is unlikely to be an effective strategy if only a few shareholders take part. However, if you are able to get institutional investors or a significant percentage of ordinary shareholders to divest, this can lead to a drop in the company’s value, which may put enough pressure on the company to persuade its directors to change course.

Shareholder advocacy holds a lot of potential as a campaign tool if you are able to convince investors in the company to support your cause. Sometimes an ethical investment fund based in the relevant country will already hold shares in the company. It may be worth contacting them to ask if they hold shares and, if so, whether they will support your campaign. The fund managers need to uphold the fund’s claim and reputation as ethical, so if you can show that the company has harmful practices, the fund should pay attention to what you have to say. Another approach is to ask a civil society partner in the country to buy a few shares, which will give them voting rights. They can even delegate those rights to you and community representatives, which will allow you to attend the company’s annual general meeting, pose questions and share information informally with other investors in attendance.

Box 21: Case Study

Shareholder Advocacy in the Vedanta Campaign

Niyamgiri mountain in the state of Orissa, India, is the ancestral home of one of the world’s most vulnerable tribal peoples, the Kondh. The Kondh rely on the mountain for their food, medicines and culture. It is also the seat of their god, the supreme deity Niyam Raja.

ActionAid supported the Kondh in their battle with UK mining giant Vedanta Resources. The company wanted to build an open-pit bauxite (aluminium) mine at the top of Niyamgiri mountain. This would force the Kondh tribe to move elsewhere and their unique way of life would be lost forever.

The Kondh tribe were determined to protect the mountain. They held several demonstrations against the company. ActionAid India supported the Kondh community by providing legal support for the community’s challenges; documenting environmental and human rights violations; creating media attention around the threat; facilitating the community’s mobilization; taking part in behind-the-scenes lobbying; and by maintaining a daily, on the ground relationship with the Kondh people.

However, it soon became clear that to have an impact on the power and might of Vedanta, it was important to take the Kondh’s struggle beyond the community level – and beyond India. With Vedanta listed on the British stock exchange, campaigners at ActionAid UK and ActionAid International highlighted the issue to UK media and investors, using a two-pronged approach that covered the company’s legal home-base in the UK and the site of the alleged human rights violations in India.

Using strategic media stunts, celebrity spokespeople, submissions to the UK government, investor lobbying, and by enabling the Kondh people to travel to Vandanta’s annual general meetings and voice their plight, ActionAid’s work outside India added power to the movement in Orissa. The Joseph Rowntree Trust and the Church of England, two major, high-profile investors, pulled out of the company in February 2010. Both cited concerns about the rights of the Kondh tribe. This caused Vedanta’s share price to drop and damaged the company’s reputation.

In August 2010, after six years of national and international campaigning, disinvestment by key Vedanta shareholders and protracted legal challenges, the community had a major breakthrough. The Indian government refused permission for the mine to go ahead. The Environmental Minister came out strongly against the mine, criticising the company and accusing it of breaking the law.

Source: ActionAid.

Think Creatively to Find More Pressure Points

If you are creative, sometimes you can find other actors that are not directly in the investment chain but are still important pressure points. These could be actors that promote investment or trade schemes, or development agencies that are funding projects or policy reforms that impact your case.

For example, let’s say you are working on a case concerning a hydropower dam that has grabbed indigenous community land and forests in your country. You map the investment chain of the plantation company but you can’t find any strong pressure points. Next, you should look to see if there are any infrastructure projects or energy sector reforms that have helped make the dam possible.

For example, you might find that electricity generated by the dam is transmitted by a power line that was financed by a development bank, such as the World Bank or Asian Development Bank. Although the bank is not directly responsible for the project, its resources are enabling the project and indirectly harming local communities. Or, you may find that an international development bank provided financial and technical assistance to the government to reform its laws and policies to make it more attractive for large-scale hydropower investment. Even though the involvement of the development bank is indirect, this link can be enough to target it in your advocacy. You can demand that the bank use its leverage with the government and dam operator to provide redress to the affected communities.

The key is to find new actors that are strong pressure points because:

  • They are implicated either directly or indirectly in the harms that you are seeking to address.
  • They have an accountability mechanism or are susceptible to other forms of advocacy.
  • They have influence over your primary advocacy target, the business managing the project.

The following case study is a good example of how advocates working with the Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign effectively used a creative advocacy strategy to gain leverage over the government and companies, which were not responding to other advocacy strategies.

Box 22: Case Study

Cambodian Clean Sugar Campaign and the EU Everything But Arms Trade Scheme

In 2006, the Cambodian government began leasing vast amounts of land to private investors to develop industrial sugarcane plantations. The land concessions overlapped with community-managed forests and the private landholdings of small-scale farmers, leading to their displacement. Some of the concessions involved violent forced evictions, with entire villages being burnt to the ground by the Cambodian military in collusion with the companies. In some cases, those who protested the land seizures were thrown in jail.

With no justice available through domestic remedies in Cambodia, in 2010 an alliance of NGOs and affected communities came together to form the Clean Sugar Campaign, which has pursued multi-pronged advocacy strategies targeting different actors along the investment chains of the plantations. The campaign aims to:

·    Stop human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by the sugar industry in Cambodia;

·    Bring about a just resolution for the individuals and communities who have been harmed by the industry; and

·    Ensure that the agricultural development and trade policies benefit smallholder farmers and local communities.

The campaign brought together several displaced communities from across the country, making their advocacy stronger through their united actions and objectives.

Campaign members pursued legal action in the United Kingdom against a UK company that is importing the sugar (see Box 15). They have filed complaints with the Thai Human Rights Commission against the Thai sugar producing companies, a complaint with the OECD National Contact Point in Australia against an Australian bank that was financing one of the plantations, and complaints to Bonsucro, the sugar industry’s multi-stakeholder initiative (see the case study in Box 19). They have used media advocacy and online campaigns targeting consumers to pressure investors and major buyers to use their leverage to get the sugar companies to stop abuses and provide redress to affected communities or terminate their business relationships with them.

These strategies combined put significant pressure on the plantation companies, yet after four years of effort they still hadn’t secured redress for the affected communities. In late 2014, however, another the campaign employed another creative strategy that finally started to bear fruit.

The campaigners realized that the sugarcane producers, which were predominantly Thai, were motivated to invest in plantations in Cambodia because of the European Union’s Everything But Arms preferential trade scheme. Everything But Arms provides duty-free access to the European market and a guaranteed minimum price for sugar produced in a least developed country. Since Thailand does not qualify for Everything But Arms status, Thai sugar companies have sought to establish operations in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos in order to benefit from the lucrative trade preferences. With research and advocacy, the campaigners showed that the EU policy is part of the problem because it is incentivising companies that grab people’s land, destroy forests and violate human rights.

The coalition campaigned for the European Commission to carry out a formal investigation of human rights abuses and withdraw preferential trade arrangements for sugar produced in Cambodia until the companies provide reparations to the affected communities.

In response to lobbying, the EU Parliament adopted two resolutions urging the European Commission to launch an investigation. In 2014, under intense pressure from the campaign, the European Commission succeeding in convincing the Cambodian Government to commission a third-party audit of the displacement impacts and losses suffered by communities affected by the sugar industry. The audit will assess claims and make recommendations for the redress of affected communities. The Clean Sugar Campaign will monitor this process and continue to advocate to ensure that it results in fair and just reparations for all families negatively impacted by the sugar industry.

For more about the Clean Sugar Campaign and to follow its progress, see here.

Managing Risks

Important Point

Using the advocacy strategies described on this website to defend the rights and interests of affected communities often means challenging the interests of local elites and powerful corporations. As such, these strategies may involve security risks for you, your organization and the communities that you serve. These can include risks to the privacy of your information, the legal status of your organization, your own legal security and sometimes even your physical security. The risks of doing corporate accountability work vary widely from country to country, and as human rights advocates you will know best what the risks are in your legal and political environment.

Sometimes these risks are unavoidable when you are challenging powerful people, but other times they are the result of not being careful enough and a lack of planning. While there is no way to completely avoid the risks that accompany this work, there are ways you can reduce the risks. The following tips can help make you and your group more secure:

Be aware of risks: It is important to ensure that you, your team and the community advocates are all aware of the risks of your actions. Before you take any new actions, such as conducting research, filing a complaint, talking to the media or holding a protest, consider and discuss the range of possible security risks. Assess the likelihood of possible security problems and take this into account in deciding whether it is worth proceeding with the planned activity. Make a plan for dealing with any security issues that do arise, including agreeing on several contact people (who are aware of your plans in advance) to alert immediately. Ensure everyone has the list of phone numbers and other contact details.

Keep confidential information safe: In some countries, government agencies are able to listen to your phone calls and read your emails and text messages. If you suspect this might be the case in your country, and you want to discuss sensitive information with partners, including advocacy strategies, you should try to meet them to talk face to face. If that is not possible, conversations on Google Hangouts are usually a more secure way to talk, although surveillance technology is constantly evolving and it maybe not be completely secure.

If possible, get a second mobile phone with a different SIM card that is not registered in your name and use that for sensitive conversations. Store sensitive documents in a secure place, such as a filing cabinet with a lock, and keep back-up information, copies of computer files and paper files in a secure place. When talking directly to people about something sensitive, make sure that you know and trust them and be careful that there is nobody nearby who is listening. Access Now, a non-profit organization, offers free advice to human rights activists and journalists on digital security.

Know the law and act within it: It is important to know what the law is in your country and make sure that you respect it, both in your words and actions. Sometimes human rights defenders are falsely charged with criminal offences or served unjustly with civil lawsuits in an effort to keep them silent, but the best way to avoid legal risks and to defend yourself if you are unjustly sued or prosecuted is to follow the law at all times.

One of the most common legal risks that human rights advocates face is being sued for defamation. The laws on defamation are different in every country and you should find out what they are in your country. Typically, defamation laws prohibit people from making false statements about another person in public or to a third party that cause injury or damage to the person’s reputation. Libel and slander are different types of defamation. Slander refers to verbal statements, while libel usually refers to statements made in writing. In most countries that have these laws, only statements that claim to be facts – not opinions – can be considered defamatory. In many (but not all) countries, the truth is a defense against defamation, though proving the truth can often be more costly and difficult than often assumed.

Important Point

No matter what the law is in your country, you should always speak the truth in public. If you are not absolutely sure about the facts, or you don’t have the evidence to back it up, you should not make an accusation against another person or company in public or to any third party. If the truth is not a defense under the defamation laws in your country, or if there is weak rule of law, you should carefully assess the risks of making any critical statements about powerful people and corporations in public. If you are threatened with legal action, you should immediately consult a trusted lawyer.

Respond calmly and proactively to threats: If you or your organization identify a serious security threat, it is important to respond calmly but proactively:

  1. Make a detailed record of any threats you experience immediately afterward, so that you have a record if you decide to report the incident to the authorities.
  2. Mobilize support from your colleagues, partners and others who support your work, including local and international organizations, as appropriate.
  3. Monitor the situation carefully and seek external monitoring support, if necessary.
  4. Maintain security precautions, like changing your routine each day so that it is harder for people to follow you and find you.
  5. If you fear for your safety, you may want to stop your advocacy activities for a while and even consider physically moving to a safe location.
  6. Sometimes, rather than staying quiet, it is better to raise the profile of a threat by telling the media about it. However, only do this if you think it will improve your security. Sometimes it can be effective for your NGO or a group of supportive NGOs to issue a collective statement about the threats.

If you, your colleagues or your organization face serious threats to your security, the following international organisations may be able to provide support:

  • Frontline Defenders provides 24-hour support to human rights defenders facing immediate risks. Details about the emergency service and other support, including contact information, can be found here.
  • The Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund provides emergency financial assistance to civil society organisations under threat or attack and advocacy support responding to broader threats to civil society. Details can be found here.
  • Civil Rights Defenders
  • Amnesty International

Useful Resources:

Power Prism, A Tool for Advocacy Planning, Execution and Evaluation, M+R.

How to Write an Op-Ed Article, Duke University.

Tips for Op-Ed Writing and How to Pitch, The Op-Ed project.

A Guide to Shareholder Resolutions in the UK, FairPensions.

A Guide to Personal Security for Human Rights Defenders, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia.


What Is An Investment Chain?

Worksheet 1 Download

How to Map An Investment Chain

Worksheet 2 Download

Identifying Pressure Points

Worksheet 3 Download

Following the Money: An Advocates Guide to Securing Accountability in Agricultural Investments

Guide Download