DR.Congo. Land grabbing: colonial law prevails upon community rights

In a recent report, Congolese and European NGOs accuse a Canadian company and development agencies of land grabbing at the expanse of local communities. Yet, the land was leased by the state.

Working conditions in industrial palm-oil plantations in North-East DRC described in the report « Agro-colonialism” in the Congo, by the Spanish-based NGO Grain and the RIAO network of support to Congolese NGOs, reminds of Joseph Conrad’s novel, “in the heart of darkness”. According to Rev. Robert Bolenge who spent ten years from 2001 to 2011 at Yaligimba, in the Eastern Province, in the middle of a palm-oil plantation owned by the Canadian firm, Feronia, workers earned 20 dollars per month when he arrived there. Today, the daily salary in Feronia plantations of Boteka and Lokotu, says the report is still very low, about Congolese francs 1,400 (US $ 1.5), even below the minimum salary in the DRC (CF 1,680). Besides, according to local civil society representatives, salaries are often paid three or four months late to the workers of Feronia’s Lokutu plantations.

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Moreover, the report also claims that during the Belgian colonization, the land “was stolen” from the local communities all along the length of the Congo River to establish oil palm plantations. According to Gaspard Bosenge-Akoko, member of the Eastern Province Parliament, they began asking local chiefs for one or two hectares in exchange for some bags of salt. When they found the lands to be very fertile, “they started grabbing more and more land and they cleared them of all but the oil palms so that they could establish plantations. The indigenous people were forced onto smaller areas, called reserves, where they were told that they could continue with their traditional practices. But today, even these reserve lands have been taken over. They took all these lands without a single legal document”, says the Reverend. Community leaders at the company’s Lokutu plantations say that the only document that Feronia or Unilever have ever shown them as evidence of the company’s rights to the 63,000 ha concession it claims is an old registration certificate that is riddled with errors and that does not confer any legal title.

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At Boteka plantations, local leaders explain to RIAO that Feronia signed a concessionary agreement with the government of the DRC in 2012 establishing the company’s rights to use the 15,000 ha former Unilever concession for agricultural purposes. However, the local communities say they were never consulted about the agreement, as is their legal right. On March 8, 2015, over 60 customary chiefs and other community leaders from across the district of Yahuma, where Feronia’s Lokutu plantations are located, signed a declaration to reclaim their rights “over the lands that have been illegally taken over the past 104 years,” and ask for compensations. Moreover, point out the authors of the report, the ownership of land by Feronia is not in compliance with the new Agricultural Law of 2012, which stipulates in Article 16 that the land is either owned by Congolese individuals or by companies which have a majority of Congolese shareholders. In Feronia’s case, the local subsidiary through which it owns the plantations, is a joint venture in which only 24% of the stakes are owned by the Congolese state.

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The land of the communities was grabbed but in addition, a “system of slavery” prevails at Yaligimba, says Rev. Bolenge. “At one point, I started encouraging them to plant crops and raise livestock in the abandoned areas of the plantation. But when it was time to harvest, the
company destroyed all the crops and ordered the people out by force. It’s as if the company wants to ensure that the people stay dependent on it for their survival”. Villagers say that anyone caught carrying just a few nuts fallen from the oil palms is fined or, in many cases, whipped, hand cuffed and taken to the nearest prison by the company security guards.
According to the report, several development finance institutions are involved in the Feronia project. Indeed, Feronia, which bought the plantations from Unilever in 2009, at the beginning racked up tens of millions of dollars. The company would problaby have collapsed had it not been for its rescue by several major multilateral banks and development finance institutes, which started in 2012. One of them is the African Agricultural Fund (AAF) which now owns 32.5 % of Feronia’s shares, whose main shareholders are the Agence française de développement (AFD), Spain’s Agencia Española de Cooperación al Desarrollo (AECID) the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation. (OPIC). The other important institutional shareholder is Britain’s CDC Group which now owns 48% of the shares of the Canadian corporation.

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In an e-mail to the author, OPIC’s press officer, Charles Stadtlander, stresses that OPIC has not yet invested in Feronia, though the company is currently considering such support. He also stresses that OPIC requires its partners “to comply with the World Bank Group International Finance Corporation’s recognized performance standards as they relate to the environment, labor and human rights, land acquisition and resettlement. Simply put, if a project is engaging in unlawful acquisition of land, OPIC does not support it.” Accordingly, “as part of the consideration to support Feronia, OPIC is reviewing the project’s compliance with the IFC performance standards, including Standard #5, which governs land acquisition and resettlement”.

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Feronia which says the report contains “substantial inaccuracies and sensationalism”, says that its initial focus has been on rebuilding the business and resuming production on the abandoned plantations to secure its future and the livelihoods of the 3,600 people. It claims to have a “long-term commitment to improve the living and working environment of our employees and their communities”. Accordingly, “if Feronia had not acquired this business and secured substantial international funding for the rehabilitation of the operation and its
social infrastructure, there would be no employment, no medical facilities or professionals, no education, no hope”. “All roads in our communities have been built by Feronia and are maintained continuously by Feronia. Through the presence of our company there is access to mobile telephony and electricity” claims the company which says it has put in place “an
Environmental and Social Action Plan” which includes “the drilling of additional boreholes, the rehabilitation of workers homes and the rehabilitation of our four hospital complexes”.

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Feronia also says it had “revolving 25-year leases” which it inherited from PHC after it purchased this Unilever’s subsidiary in 2009, covering 101,455 ha at Lokutu, Boteka and Yaligimba. The concessions were leased to PHC’s predecessor, the Huileries du Congo Belge, by the Belgian colonial state. Yet, at no point, the Congolese state has challenged the legality of such leases. Moreover, one of its highest representative, the Congolese ambassador in London, ,Barnabé Kikaya bin Karubi, prior to that, President Joseph Kabila’s Private Secretary and Minister of Information, has served on the Board of Directors of Feronia from its inception until some point in 2014. According to the report, he also acted as an intermediary to facilite the purchase of PHC by Feronia. In such context, the situation described in the report by the NGO, derives from the Congolese government’s choice of the colonial legacy prevailing over the rights of the communities, which is recognised in Article 18 of the Agricultural Law. Obviously, foreign businessmen took advantage of it.

François Misser


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