Letter from NGOs to the UK's CDC regarding its actions to undermine a community mediation process with Feronia

Residents of Mindonga settlement stand on the banks of the stream of effluents released by the PHC palm oil mill. Their adobe houses can be seen within close proximity in the background. February 2, 2019, Yaligimba.(Photo: Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch)
RIAO et al. | 22 November 2019

Mr. Nick O'Donohoe, CEO of the CDC Group 
Christiane Laibach, Chair of the Management Board of DEGinvest -Germany
Peter Van Mierlo, CEO of Nederlandse FMO NV 
Grégory Clémente, CEO of PROPARCO – France 
Luuk Zonneveld, CEO of BIOinvest – Belgium 
Aina Calvo Sastre, Director of AECID – Spain 
Edward Burrier, COO of the US International Development Finance Corporation 
Christiane Rudolph, International Complaints Mechanism 
22 November 2019
Dear Mr. O'Donohoe, 
We are writing to express our grave concerns about your organisation's deliberate efforts to undermine the mediation process of the International Complaints Mechanism (ICM) in a case involving nine communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), supported by the Congolese organisation RIAO-RDC, and the Canadian oil palm plantation company Feronia Inc., in which the CDC Group is a major shareholder. 
We have learned from first-hand accounts that the CDC supported and participated in a meeting with approximately 80 community members that was facilitated by the consultancy Earthworm Foundation (formerly The Forest Trust) in Lokutu, Tshopo Province, on 1 November 2019. According to several community members who participated in this meeting, the representative of Earthworm who led the meeting, the two representatives of the CDC who participated in the meeting and the Director of the Lokutu division of Feronia-PHC all urged the participants to abandon the mediation process and to discontinue their collaboration with RIAO-RDC, the NGO nominated by nine communities around the plantations of Boteka and Lokutu to accompany them in the ICM mediation process. The CDC and Earthworm representatives urged the community participants to collaborate with Earthworm instead, and promised material benefits in exchange. 
According to first hand testimonies from local community members who participated in the meeting:
- Members of RIAO-RDC were deliberately excluded from the meeting. 
- The Earthworm representative began the meeting with a presentation denouncing RIAO-RDC in which he projected a photo of RIAO-RDC's director (Jean-François Mombia Atuku) and photos from meetings in which RIAO-RDC members had actively participated, including the visit of German parliamentarians in August 2018, the two sessions of the ICM panel in Lokutu (June and August 2019) and one meeting of the ICM panel in Boteka (August 2019). The Earthworm representative claimed that these photos, which were taken by RIAO-RDC, were published online. However, some of these photos have not been shared outside of personal communication channels, and it is worrying that they had somehow been accessed by the Earthworm representative.
- The Earthworm representative overtly denounced RIAO-RDC's work and called on participants to cease collaboration with RIAO-RDC. He said that RIAO-RDC and its partner organisations were misleading the communities and were pursuing a hidden agenda to get Feronia-PHC to leave so that another company could take over the plantations. 
-The Earthworm representative told the participants that his organisation had signed a 3-year contract with Feronia and that, if the communities stopped collaborating with RIAO-RDC and worked  with them instead, that the company would make available everything their communities require. The same message was delivered by the CDC representatives who told the participants that they should not allow RIAO in the area any more and that they should work with Earthworm instead to develop community projects. The CDC representatives said that if the communities worked with Earthworm, CDC would provide funding.
- When participants from the communities stood up and told the CDC and Earthworm representatives that they were tired of such promises and were only interested in the ICM mediation process, Feronia-PHC's Lokutu director, who was also in the room, accused the participants of being members of RIAO-RDC who had infiltrated the meeting. One of the participants then responded by saying: "No, I am not a member of RIAO. I am a member of a local community. And I am telling you that we want the mediation, nothing else."  
This meeting can only be understood as a deliberate attempt to undermine the relations between RIAO-RDC and the local communities and to sabotage the ICM mediation process. The boycott of the meeting by all of the district chiefs (chefs de secteurs) and administrators from the three territories who were invited, as well as the comments made by participants during the meeting, should provide a clear indication to the CDC and all other development banks involved in Feronia, including the DEG, FMO, Proparco, BIO, OPIC/DFC, and AECID, that the nine communities want a mediation process focussed on the question of lands. The development banks have an obligation to ensure that the communities are able to realise this through the ICM process.  
We understand that Feronia Inc will be holding a meeting in London, UK with its shareholders and its development bank lenders on November 25, 2019. We have copied several of these development banks to this letter, as the CDC's actions undermine the complaints mechanism that three of these banks (DEG, FMO and Proparco) established to ensure the integrity and responsibility of their investments. We also intend to make this letter public and to share it with government officials responsible for oversight of each of the development banks, given the gravity of the situation. 
In light of the above, we call on the CDC to publicly clarify its position on the ongoing ICM mediation process. We furtherrequest that all of the development banks invested in Feronia Inc-- including the DEG, FMO, Proparco, BIO, OPIC/DFC, and AECID-- make a collective, public commitment to support the ICM mediation process and to put in place the enabling conditions for the nine communities to safely participate and for RIAO-RDC to accompany the nine communities in this mediation process.
We also call on the CDC Group and all the development banks involved in the Feronia-PHC oil palm plantations as lenders and / or shareholders, such as the DEG, FMO, Proparco, BIO, OPIC/DFC, and AECID, to demonstrate their commitment to the de-escalation of conflicts at the plantation sites.  The development banks, particularly those that set up the complaints mechanism, have a duty to ensure that participation in the mediation process is safe. However, since the mediation process was launched in the DRC in May this year, a member of RIAO-RDC from the Boteka plantation area was brutally killed in July and 11 community leaders from the Lokutu plantation area who actively participated in the mediation process were violently arrested in September and remain imprisoned, some without charge and some under the spurious charge of having organised a clandestine organisation to attack the company. We note also, during this past month, the unexplained murder of a local security guard at the Feronia compound in Lokutu, the mysterious and sudden death of three close family members of one of the community leaders imprisoned in Lokutu, and reports of violent clashes between PHC management and workers at the Yaligimba operations. We also recall that no investigation has yet been carried out into the killing of a pygmy couple in 2015 who were accused of taking palm nuts at the Boteka plantations. 
The killing, arrests, intimidation and harassment of villagers at the plantation sites show that the development banks financing Feronia are failing in their duty to provide a safe space for the mediation process to take place and that those speaking out for their rights in the context of the complaints process are putting their lives at risk. 
We find it unacceptable that the CDC and the other development banks, including the DEG, FMO, Proparco, BIO, OPIC/DFC, and AECID, have not acted to sanction Feronia-PHC when presented with evidence of its involvement in gross human rights violations, such as the company's payment for the legal defence of the accused killer of the RIAO member in Boteka or the use of Feronia-PHC vehicles in the arrest of community leaders in Lokutu. While we acknowledge that the CDC Group announced an "independent investigation" into the circumstances of the killing of the RIAO-RDC member in Boteka, we are alarmed by the CDC's choice of a corporate surveillance company (IBIS) to lead the investigation, as was reported by Jeune Afrique. IBIS specialises in protecting "Government Officials, Politicians, Heads of State, CEOs of multinational corporations and rock stars” and offers "Private Investigation Services" such as "Covert Video and Hidden Cameras," "IBIS Resource Personnel Sources and Informants", "Electronic Eavesdropping Counter Measures", and "Pretexts & Stings”.(1) We also note that neither the CDC nor its investigative team have contacted RIAO-RDC for information regarding the murder. 
The actions of the CDC and the lack of action on the part of the CDC and the other development banks to ensure a conducive environment for the ICM mediation process sends a strong signal that you are not sincere about your public commitments to your investment guidelines and the various grievance mechanisms that your organisation and other development banks have created to ensure accountability to the communities affected by your investment decisions. 
Once again, we call on the CDC and all of the development banks that are involved in the Feronia-PHC oil palm plantations as lenders and / or shareholders, including the DEG, FMO, Proparco, BIO, OPIC/DFC, and AECID, to: 
    1) issue a clear statement of support for the mediation process; and,
    2) ensure that all community members can participate in the process without fear for their security, and
    3) ensure that the request expressed by the nine communities in their complaint submitted to the ICM - to not be put at a disadvantage in the mediation process for lack of access to financial and legal support – be honoured.
We look forward to your response.
Bread for All (Switzerland)
CCFD-Terre Solidaire (France)
Collectif des planteurs de palmier à huile (Cote d'Ivoire)
Corner House (UK)
FIAN Belgium (Belgium)
FIAN Germany (Germany)
Global Legal Action Network (International)
Global Justice Now! (United Kingdom)
GRAIN (International)
Milieudefensie - Friends of the Earth Netherlands (The Netherlands)
Réseau des femmes braves (Cote d'Ivoire)
urgewald e.V. (Germany)
World Rainforest Movement (International)
(1) http://www.ibiscorp.com/Private%20Investigations.html
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