Tensions between local communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Canadian oil palm company Feronia have escalated in recent months following a complaint presented last year to the company’s international financial backers. Affected communities have denounced forced displacement and the illegal occupation of their ancestral lands. They now hope Feronia will come under increased international pressure to finally address a long history of violent land conflicts.
On 16 March military forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reportedly fired live bullets against protesters from the Bolombo and Wamba villages in the municipality of Mwingi, Tshopo Province. The two villages are located within the Lokutu oil palm concession of Canadian company Feronia.
Tensions in the area have increased in recent months following an international complaint presented late last year by affected communities against Feronia over the alleged illegal occupation of their lands. Since the beginning of the year, nine communities have protested over unpaid or underpaid wages for local plantation workers, and demanded that the company return their lands.
Feronia controls the Lokutu, Yaligimba and Boteka oil palm plantations in DRC, which together cover 100,000 hectares. The Canadian company gained control of the plantations in 2008 when it acquired Unilever’s subsidiary Plantations and Huileries du Congo (PHC). Local villagers have denounced displacement and occupation of their lands since colonial times and throughout Unilever and Feronia’s tenure of the concessions.
Feronia has pledged to address the issue of unpaid wages. According to RIAO-RDC, a Congolese NGO that represents the communities affected by Feronia’s plantations, the company has paid some of the salaries but many of the daily labourers have only received partial payments.
Villagers at Mwingi have blocked roads and destroyed bridges to stop the company moving palm nuts out of the Lokutu plantation and have begun harvesting the palm fruits and processing palm oil themselves in an attempt to improve their livelihoods.
RIAO-RDC argues that “the loss of lands and the company’s failure to provide benefits to the local people have resulted in serious impacts on the rights of local communities and their living conditions.”
The organisation has accused the company of undermining recent mediation efforts by convening a closed-door meeting with local community leaders in which RIAO-RDC representatives were prevented from participating. This came at a time when an international panel dealing with the communities’ complaint presented last year had been attempting to meet the nine affected communities (this meeting apparently had to be postponed as panel members did not receive their visas in time for their visit to DRC).
International finance institutions under pressure to act
The development finance institution CDC Group, owned by the UK government, owns 38 percent of Feronia. CDC has invested over 25 million USD in Feronia since 2013. Other European and US development banks and institutions have also invested in Feronia’s activities in the DRC, including DEG (Germany), FMO (Netherlands), BIO (Belgium), Proparco (France), OPIC (US) and AECID (Spain). According to an international coalition of civil society organisations, Feronia has received over 180 million USD in financial assistance from these institutions since 2013.
In November 2018, nine communities filed a complaint with the DEG’s complaints mechanism, which is a joint initiative of DEG, FMO and Proparco. The communities accused Feronia of land theft and of depriving them of their livelihoods.
Communities hope that the complaint will persuade the consortium of funders to force the company to initiate a dispute resolution process with them.
According to an international civil society coalition that has supported the complaint – which includes FIAN, Oxfam, RIAO-RDC, Grain, WRM, CCFD-Terre Solidaire and The Corner House, among others – “poverty and malnutrition in communities is widespread and severe, and communities claim that conditions have deteriorated since Feronia took control of Unilever’s plantations.”
In January 2019, the Development Bank Complaints Commission (in charge of the complaints management mechanism at the German, Dutch and French development banks) decided to accept the communities’ complaint and initiate a review process.
RIAO-RDC has called on the Congolese government and these finance institutions “to ensure that Feronia stops all abuses and violence against the communities.”
A history of violent conflict and land disputes
In addition to lack of opportunities and extremely low wages offered by the plantations, community members have also complained of violence and mistreatment by police and plantation security guards. There have been reports of detentions, torture, beatings and killings of several villagers by police and security companies hired by Feronia, mostly following accusations that community members had stolen palm fruits from the concession areas.
In 2017 and 2018 violent conflicts between the communities and Feronia were reported. In April 2018 RIAO denounced that Feronia and the governor of Tshopo, with heavy police presence, had forced community members to sign memoranda of understanding on land demarcations. Before that, in August 2017, the communities, RIAO-RDC and Feronia signed “peace agreements” but, according to RIAO-RDC, Feronia unilaterally withdrew from the agreements to focus on having the memoranda signed.
In September 2018, after RIAO-RDC reported on the alleged misallocation of funds provided to Feronia by the DEG for community development, a delegation of the German Parliament visited Lokutu and found discrepancies between the company’s reports on the use of the funds and the situation on the ground.