UK food retailer Big Food Group, owners of UK frozen food retailer Iceland, has come under fire from debt campaigners over its attempts to claim more than £12m (US$19m) in compensation from Guyana in South America.

The group is trying to recover a 27-year-old debt arising from the nationalisation of the country’s sugar industry, which was at that time owned by Booker, in 1976, reported the Guardian.

Big Food Group, which acquired Booker three years ago, is hoping the case will be settled at an arbitration hearing by the international court for the settlement of investment disputes later this month.

The dispute follows Nestlé’s recent attempt to claim $6m from the government of Ethiopia relating to a long-standing property claim. Nestlé dropped the claim following uproar from the public and from charities.

Guyana is said to be one of the world’s poorest countries, where average income is around £1.50 a day. The country has paid back around £6.2m of the original £13m debt to Booker, but defaulted on payments in 1989 because of a currency crisis. With interest, the amount owed is now £12.1m.

Ashok Sinha of the Jubilee Debt Campaign said Guyana was receiving debt relief on money owed to the World Bank and to countries including Britain.

“It hasn’t been granted debt relief by the international community just so that Iceland can pick up a slice of the proceeds,” he was quoted by the Guardian as saying.

“The money from this relief needs to be spent on attacking poverty not marginally improving the Big Food Group’s bottom line.”

Big Food Group declined to comment on the matter but the company stressed it was not taking legal action to recover the money and that it was aware of its responsibilities, the Guardian reported, citing sources close to the company.