John Vidal (@john_vidal) is The Guardian’s environment editor. This piece appears in the publication’s Global Development section, which is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The content of this site is editorially independent.
A Canadian palm-oil company owned in part by the British government is being accused of “land-grabbing and human rights abuses” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The company – Feronia – is owned in part by the CDC group, which is the UK’s development finance institution (DFI). Other European government DFIs also have a stake in Feronia. Government-backed investments in the UK are legally mandated to support “poverty alleviation in developing countries.” Feronia has previously had financial difficulties; the government investment has stabilized its operations.
But at what cost?
Community leaders say living conditions for workers are “abysmal” and that their ancestral land has been illegally taken from them. And local (and international) rights groups cite a new report issued by Grain – a small, international non-profit – accusing the British government and Feronia of “agro-colonialism.” The report claims that the British government has invested more than fourteen million pounds of public funds in a company “that paid workers as little as $1 a day to work and live in harsh tropical conditions…”
“Workers are living in crumbling homes, in severe disrepair. There is malnutrition in the communities near the plantations,” said Jean-François Mombia Atuku, a campaigner with RIAO-RDC, a Congolese NGO that has co-written the report with European land rights organisation Grain.
“We have only suffered from the negative impacts of the plantations, such as the disappearance of caterpillars, mushrooms, wild animals, freshwater fish, and, overall, the near complete loss of the flora and fauna. This has resulted in severe malnutrition among our children and even our elders; the mortality rate for infants and mothers during childbirth is amongst the highest in the province,” says the report.
The British government says it is not aware of the grievances around the swirling claims of land ownership, but says that the government of the DRC also has a stake in the company.
“We believe the company has a valid right to be there,” said [David] Easton [CDC – British government entity]. He said the DRC government, which has a stake in Feronia, confirmed that the company is working legitimately. “Feronia has a valid title to the area where it operates. But we are looking carefully at the report and are keen to work with NGOs,” said Easton.
In a statement, CDC added: “Without CDC’s investment, Feronia would not have survived and 3,500 people would have lost their jobs, as well as the access to schools, hospitals and infrastructure that the company provides to workers and the community.
“In the first 18 months of our investment we’ve met our top priorities of helping the company secure its immediate future and deliver improved pay and benefits for all of its workers.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not the only place in Africa experiencing conflict around the ownership and control of agricultural land. Recently, Reuters reported on an agricultural plan in Mozambique (backed by that nation’s government and foreign investors) that could displace as many as 100,000 farmers. (See link below).