Killing of Joël Imbangola Lunea allegedly linked to ongoing unrest between local communities and Canadian palm oil giant Feronia
Satellite image of Feronia’s Boteka plantation in DRC.
The actions of Feronia-PHC are
under intense scrutiny again after a local environmental activist in Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC) was killed reportedly by a security guard working for
the palm oil giant.
Joël Imbangola Lunea was killed
on 21 July near Boteka, northern DRC, allegedly by a local Feronia-PHC employee
who accused him of transporting palm oil stolen from its nearby plantation.
Lunea worked for RIAO-RDC, a
Congolese environmental and human rights group that has long protested the
Canadian company’s presence and the impact its projects have on communities.
It was reported that at around
3pm local time on Sunday 21 July, Lunea, who operated a small boat service, was
preparing to transport passengers across the river when the Feronia-PHC
employee accused him of transporting containers of stolen palm oil from the
NGO alleges that the security guard then violently attacked the father
of five and killed him by strangling.
“RIAO-RDC holds Feronia Inc to be
responsible for Mr. Joël’s murder,” director Jean-Frallancois Mombia Atuku
said. “Feronia has taken insufficient action over the years to prevent its
security guards from harassing local community people over unsubstantiated
claims of stealing palm fruits or palm oil.
“RIAO-RDC is now calling on the
relevant authorities of the DRC and on the Governor of Equateur Province in
particular to make an immediate investigation into the killing of Mr. Joël.”
In a separate email to Earthsight,
Atuku said that according to colleagues in the area, Lunea’s body was only
found on 24 July and that the attack occurred between the villages of Bempumba
In a statement to Earthsight, a
Feronia spokesperson said: “The Company is deeply saddened to learn that one of
its employees is being sought by the police in relation to the death of Mr Joël
Imbangola Lunea on Sunday 21 July 2019. Police are treating Mr Lunea’s death as
“There are different versions of
events being reported and we are attempting to gather the facts of what
happened. A number of witnesses have informed the Company that the disagreement
which lead to the tragic incident was of a personal nature but, with the
incident occurring approximately 18 km from Feronia’s plantation, near the
employee’s home village, whilst he was on four weeks annual leave, establishing
facts is proving difficult.”
When asked for clarity about
their employee’s leave period, the company spokesperson said “he was indeed on
annual leave (about two weeks into a month, if my memory serves me correctly).”
Disputes between local communities and Feronia's plantations, including its Lokutu operations, have been widely reported.
A 13,000-hectare plantation,
Boteka is one of three
Feronia palm oil projects in DRC, which total 100,000 hectares, along
with its sprawling Lokutu site and operations in Yaligimba. The 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.
A mediation process initiated by
RIAO-RDC in 2017 failed to deliver any progress and in November 2018 the NGO
filed a grievance complaint on behalf of several communities who claim their
land has been illegally taken by Feronia-PHC.
The complaint was filed with the
Independent Complaints Mechanism (ICM) of the German, Dutch and French
development banks – who along with institutions in Spain, Belgium, the UK and
the USA, have provided over $180 million in
financing to Feronia-PHC since 2013.
The NGO claims that staff are
‘facing increased intimidation’ from Feronia security guards and have accused
the organisation of being ‘an agent for foreign interests’.
In his email response to Earthsight,
Atuku said it is critical that international donors sever ties with the firm.
“Despite our denunciations on all
levels – with regards forced labor, meager wages, lack of ethics, slander and
defamation against our organization, the behaviors [of Feronia] continue and
[international donors] continue to finance them,” he said.
“We know that if Feronia
continues to kill us, it’s because of the international donors. If they had
serious audit systems in place, the events denounced by RIAO-DRC and
international partners would have been discovered long ago by these financiers
and Joel and others would not have died.”
The World Rainforest Movement
(WRM) and GRAIN have joined the calls for an investigation into Lunea’s death
and WRM have written
an open letter to DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, regional politicians
and Feronia-PHC’s international donors urging them to act.
“[We] Impress on the governors of
the three provinces where Feronia-PHC operates its disputed oil palm
plantations and on the company that members of RIAO-RDC must be able to carry
out their work safely,” the letter stated.
A Feronia statement added: “The incident
is being investigated by the police, who are also working to apprehend the
suspect, and the Company is fully supportive of the police investigation.
Everyone at Feronia is shocked and appalled by these events and we extend our
heartfelt and sincere condolences to Mr Lunea’s family at this very sad and