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DRC activists fight exploitation, brutality and land grabbing by the palm oil industry

Traditional chiefs in Lokutu, DRC The traditional chiefs and residents of Lokuto are resisting the plantation company (© RIAO-RDC) Activist Joël Imbangola Lunea (RIAO-RDC) Joël Imbangola Lunea, an activist of the environmental protection organization RIAO-RDC, was beaten to death in 2019 (© RIAO-RDC) A fully loaded pirogue is underway on the Congo River More than 100 villages along the Congo River are affected by the plantations (© guenterguni/istockphoto.com)

Feronia-PHC’s oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo are more than 110 years old – and a source of never-ending misery for people in nearby villages. Land grabbing, violence and impoverishment are a sad reality there, but activists of the RIAO-RDC and villagers are standing up to it.

The rainforests in the Congo Basin are still largely intact. However, the conversion of palm groves into industrial plantations is also harming the forests. In this regard, the oil palm plantations of Feronia-PHC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can look back on a century-old tradition of destruction. 25,000 hectares of forest have already fallen victim to the company’s operations. The concessions are vast: They extend over 107,000 hectares – an area roughly the size of New York City.

The conflict: human rights violations by the palm oil industry

The brutality and lawlessness that the local people have had to endure is horrific. The local people were never consulted in connection with the plantations, but were simply robbed of their ancestral land and thus their livelihood. In 2015, a couple accused of stealing palm oil fruits was killed, and in 2019, the villager Joel Imbangola was beaten to death.

In February 2021, following a protest march against the palm oil company PHC, villagers, including local members of RIAO-RDC, were beaten, raped and jailed without charges. Two reportedly received death threats, and women were sexually assaulted. The villagers are accused of “inciting revolt”. 

Our partner RIAO-RDC

To stand up for the rights of the villagers, Jean-François Mombia Atuku founded the organization RIAO-RDC, of which he is still the director today, in 2006. For years he had to live in exile, most recently in Senegal, and before that in Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda. He returned to Kinshasa with his family at the end of 2020, despite the dangers he faces in his home country.

The activists of RIAO-RDC document the issues surrounding the Feronia-PHC concessions, provide information to local villagers and help them in organizing protests and fighting for their rights.

Vast spaces and distances make resistance costly

Some of the RIAO-RDC’s activities are costly because of the vastness of the concessions and their remote location in the middle of the forest. The seven-hour boat trip from Lokutu, where one of the plantations is located, to the provincial capital Kisangani costs the equivalent of 700 euros (850 USD) just to hire the boat, plus roughly the same amount again for fuel. Reaching the individual villages from the river can cost up to 100 euros for a motorbike taxi. Sometimes the trip is necessary when residents need to be present for court hearings and appointments at government offices, supported by RIAO staff. For Jean-François Mombia Atuku, who lives more than 1,000 kilometers away in Kinshasa for reasons of personal safety, traveling to the region is often unavoidable. 

Please support the work of RIAO-RDC and Jean-François Mombia Atuku. Every donation makes a real difference.

Background

Colonialism and the involvement of international development banks

The people of the region are suffering from the legacy of the colonial era, the profit interests of foreign investment firms and the activities of international financiers.

The origins of the plantations go back 110 years, when the Belgian colonial government handed over large tracts of forest to the English businessman Lord Leverhulme. These concessions were the cornerstone for today’s multinational, Unilever. In 2009, Unilever sold its lands to Feronia Inc., a Canadian company. When it went bankrupt in 2020, Straight KKM, a corporate investor based in Mauritius, acquired the plantations.

Numerous development banks in industrialized countries have a stake in the Feronia-PHC plantations: At the time of Feronia’s collapse, they held the majority of shares in Feronia Inc., either directly (CDC Group of the UK) or via investment in a fund (France’s Proparco, Spain’s AECID and the US’s DFC), and have loan repayments worth tens of millions of dollars outstanding (CDC - UK, DEG - Germany, FMO - Netherlands, BIO - Belgium and others via the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund).

The communities demand the return of their ancestral land, the use of which has been denied them for over 100 years without their consent. A coalition of international organizations is therefore putting the development banks under pressure.

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