Feronia’s EU funders look to act after report exposes Congo palm abuses


Major development banks commit to addressing reports of worker abuses, environmental pollution and other malpractices at controversial Feronia palm oil sites in DRC

Four of Feronia’s largest European backers have announced they will seek structural changes to the firm’s operations after a damning report exposed illegalities at the Canadian company’s palm oil sites in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in November revealed a string of worker abuses and environmental malpractices at Feronia concessions in northern DRC.

A Dirty Investment found that Feronia and its Congolese subsidiary exposes workers to dangerous pesticides, dumps untreated industrial waste into waterways, and engages in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.

The four development banks – Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – have invested $100 million in Feronia and Plantations and Huileries du Congo (PHC) since 2013. CDC Group also owns 38 per cent of Feronia.

“These banks can play an important role promoting development, but they are sabotaging their mission by failing to ensure that the company they finance respects the rights of its workers and communities on the plantations,” said Luciana Téllez of HRW.

The measures the banks announced in December include addressing labour rights violations that result in extremely low wages, ensuring wage parity between men and women, addressing villagers’ concerns around water contamination, and taking steps to protect the health of laborers who spray pesticides.

“Human Rights Watch will continue to engage the banks over the implementation of these measures,” the NGO said. “What is still lacking, however, is a commitment to address the monitoring and accountability failures that allowed for these abuses to happen under their watch.”

The Canadian giant gained control of the plantations in 2008 when it acquired PHC from Unilever.

Locals have denounced displacement and occupation of their lands since colonial times and throughout Unilever’s and Feronia’s tenure of the 100,000 hectare-plus concessions.

The failure of Feronia and its largest EU backers to address complaints and reported abuses at the three plantations has long been a cause of concern for civil society and community members.

A mediation process initiated by the RIAO-RDC to address land rights complaints in 2017 failed to deliver progress and in November 2018 the NGO filed a complaint on behalf of communities who claim their land has been illegally seized.

In March 2019, Congolese military reportedly fired live rounds at protestors in two villages within the Lokutu concession.

In September RIAO-RDC said that several community members were erroneously arrested following a meeting held with the complaints panel of the German development bank near the Lokutu plantation.

The news came only weeks after the murder of RIAO-RDC activist Joel Imbangola Lunea in July. It is alleged that Lunea was killed by a security guard employed by Feronia at its Boteka plantation.

In a joint statement in December the four development banks named in the HRW report said: “As a group we welcome the HRW Report and are committed to tackling the important issues raised.

“We recognise many of the issues through our own due diligence and monitoring and have, over the course of our investment, sought to resolve them in a timely and efficient way, recognising the challenges that the company is facing.”

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