DRC: Communities mobilise to free themselves from a century of colonial oil palm plantations

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After many years of running oil palm plantations, the world’s largest food company Unilever sold the lands it had grabbed mostly to foreign companies. The communities living next to and within Unilever’s former plantations are amongst the poorest in Africa. Now they are mobilizing to fight their grabbed land.

Oil palms are native to the forests of Central and West Africa and inseparable from the region’s peoples and their cultures. Communities in this part of the world have relied on oil palms for thousands of years — as a source  of  food, textiles, medicines and construction materials. Most of the world’s oil palms, how ever, are cultivated far away, in Southeast Asia, and not in  forested palm groves,  but  on massive monoculture  plantations where  tropical forests used to  stand. These oil palm plantations are a product of Europe’s  brutal colonial legacy.

When the European colonizers invaded Central and West Africa during  the nineteenth century, they came to understand (in a very narrow way) the possible wealth that could be generated from oil palm cultivation. They began taking over the local people’s large oil palm groves and tearing down forests to set up plantations. One of the pioneers of this effort was Britain’s Lord Leverhulme, who, through a campaign of terror  against the local people,  took over community palm groves and turned vast swathes of the Congo’s forests into slave  plantations. His company’s oil palm plantations would eventually expand throughout West and Central Africa and then to Southeast Asia, and provide  the  foundation  for  the multinational  corporation Unilever, one of  the world’s largest food companies . Unilever sold off its global oil palm plantations about a decade ago but to this day it remains one of the world’s biggest buyers of palm oil.

The communities living next to and within Unilever’s former plantations are amongst the poorest in Africa. At a recent gathering of leaders from African communities struggling against the expansion of oil palm plantations, held in Mundemba, Cameroon, participants on a field visit were shocked by the living conditions of the people in Ndian Town — a community within one of Unilever’s former oil palm plantations in Cameroon,  now run by the Cameroonian company Pamol (1).

Decades of  oil palm plantations had brought only poverty to the community. The lands  of Unilever’s plantations across the  Congo Basin have  not been r eturned to their inhabitants. They have instead been sold at a profit to a new batch of companies: some  of them domestic, most  of them foreign; some  of them multinationals with plantations in other countries;  some from other  business sectors having  no experience with plantations.

The latter is  the case with some  of Unilever’s original  oil palm plantations— in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After 100 years in what is now the DRC, Unilever sold three of its oil palm plantations in  2008 to  a company called Feronia, registered until recently in  the Cayman Islands. This company, listed on  the Stock Exchange in  Toronto, Canada and now majority owned by  European development  funds, had no previous experience in  agriculture. Through its  sale of  these DRC plantations, Unilever made  around USD14 million in cash and left behind  around USD10 million in  liabilities to  the new owners.

In October 2015, 12 leaders from communities located within the  various  concessions of  Equateur and Oriental pro vinces in  DRC where Feronia operates its  plantations (Yahuma, Boteka, Basoko, Yaligimba, Yalifombo, Mosité, Lokutu) gathered in Kampala, Uganda, to share experiences and chart a course of common action to liberate their communities from the  occupation and exploitation that they have endured for generations. The meeting was held in Kampala for security reasons.

It was also a moment for the Congolese NGO, RIAO -RDC and its international partners to provide the communities with information about Feronia that they were not aware of. Prior to the meeting, Feronia and its  main shareholder,  the UK development  finance institution CDC, had issued statements maintaining that Feronia was improving  the lives of workers and the local communities and that it  was in  full compliance with national and international laws and standards with regards to  its  land concessions and labour practices. (2)

The community leaders were outraged by  the claims made by  the company and the CDC. After having shared their experiences, they issue d a collective statement to make clear the reality in their communities. The leaders rejected the claims made by Feronia and the CDC, dismissing them as   “lies”. They said that the situation for   the communities had deteriorated since  Feronia  took  over  the  plantations in  2008. Their homes,  schools, clinics and roads were in  awful condition, and contrary to  what the company maintains, no new infrastructure or worker homes have been built.

The CDC claimed that the average salaries of plantation workers were increased to US$4 per day, but the leaders say that workers are frequently not paid at  all    and when they are it’s only at a rate of  US$1.5 per day. In response to the company’s claim that workers were receiving “bonuses”, the leaders said that this must  be  a newly invented word, since the concept was unknown on Feronia’s plantations. The leaders challenged the CDC to come see for itself what Feronia has been doing to local people. “The  money that you give to  Feronia does  not reach the workers and the local communities,” they stated. What the leaders say the communities want, more than anything, is  to  get their lands back from the company. They have suffered long  enough, and they are tired of false promises. At  the close  of  the meeting, the leaders established a new alliance  of communities affected by Feronia, and pledged to work together to advance their demands.

In January 2016, Feronia became majority owned by the CDC and several European development banks, through their investments in  the African Agricultural  Fund. This Fund is a Mauritius-based private equity fund financed by  bilateral and multilateral African development finance institutions. Its Technical Assistance Facility (TAF) is funded primarily by “the European Commission and managed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The TAF is co-sponsored by   the Italian Development   Corporation, United Nations   Industrial   Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Alliance for  a Green Revolution in  Africa (AGRA)”. In addition, development banks from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are also involved as investors (3).

Colonialism has come  full circle, and once again this exploitation is  being justified as “development”, as  if  the horrors of the colonial plantation system never existed. If European  governments are really interested in  making amends, they  should  focus  on reparations and support  the communities in  their demand to  bring the occupation of their territories to an end and ensure expiry of concessions in the near future is used to hand the land back to the communities.

* This is article first appeared in the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin No.224 May/June 2016.

End notes

(1) Link to statement: https://www.grain.org/e/5426

(2) http://business -humanrights.org/en/dem -rep -of-congo- report -raises -concerns -about -land -grabs – inadequate -consultations -compensation -by- feronia -unilever

(3) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578007/EXPO_ STU%282016%29578007_EN.pdf (pages 20, 21)

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