Feronia controls the Lokutu, Yaligimba and Boteka oil palm plantations in DRC covering 100,000 hectares.
A security guard employed by the Canadian palm oil giant Feronia has reportedly been acquitted of killing a local environmental activist in a shock court ruling in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Boketsu Ebuka was cleared of the murder of Joël Imbangola Lunea on 4 February, according to RAIO-RDC, the organisation Lunea worked for and long-time critics of Feronia’s operations in the country.
The local NGO have alleged that Lunea’s family and legal counsel were not informed of the court’s decision in Mbandaka, Equator province and were only made aware of the ruling on 11 February.
“RIAO-RDC is shocked and outraged by this sudden decision by the court,” a statement by the NGO stated.
“The decision to acquit Mr. Ebuka shows that companies like Feronia-PHC can act with complete impunity in the DRC. It must be overturned in order to restore some semblance of rule of law, not to speak of justice, in the country.”
Lunea was killed in July following an alleged dispute with the Feronia security guard.
The NGO said at the time that Lunea, who operated a small boat service, was preparing to transport passengers across the river when the Feronia employee accused him of transporting stolen palm oil from the Boteka plantation, one of three Feronia sites in DRC.
Feronia has not made any public statement about the court ruling reports but after Lunea’s death in July, a company spokesperson told Earthsight: “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 murder.
“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.
Knowledge of the court’s decision to reportedly drop charges against Ebuka came on the same day that a petition was launched calling for the release of five villagers arrested near a Feronia plantation.
Five villagers, and nine others who were later freed, were arrested in September near Feronia’s Lokotu plantation. The firm controls the Lokutu, Yaligimba and Boteka oil palm plantations, which together cover 100,000 hectares.
The charges relate allegedly to an incident that occurred in June 2019 when villagers from Yalifombo confronted Feronia’s management for having improperly disposed of toxic waste. Shortly after, numerous villagers reportedly became sick and several people died after developing unusually strong diarrhoea.
After the incident, the company agreed to remove the waste and comply with a social agreement that the two sides had first signed in November 2018.
As part of the agreement, Feronia reportedly committed to construct a school, health clinic and bore hole before planting oil palms on an area of community land.
It was at a September event to inaugurate Feronia’s planting programme that the villagers were arrested after reportedly questioning Feronia officials on why their plans had not materialised.
The five villagers, which include the chief of Yalifombo village, have been detained since September.
World Rainforest Movement, the non-profit which launched the petition, claim the five were only informed of the charges against them at a January court hearing. They are reportedly accused of “causing damages to Feronia’s property and physical injury to a Feronia staff member.”
“There is no justification for their ongoing detention or for the charges that have been brought against them,” WRM said. “This is clearly a case of Feronia Inc abusing of its power to intimidate villagers who dare challenge the company’s interests.”
It is the latest in a string of controversies to engulf the palm oil giant’s operation in DRC. A November report by Human Rights Watch alleged an array of employee and environment abuses against the company.
A Dirty Investment found that Feronia and its Congolese subsidiary, PHC, had exposed workers to dangerous pesticides, dumped untreated industrial waste into waterways, and engaged in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.
The report also urged the Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – four European development banks that have invested $100m in Feronia-PHC since 2013 – to improve their monitoring of Feronia’s activities.
“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,” HRW said.
In December the banks said they
would take measures to address labour rights violations that result in
extremely low wages, ensure wage parity between men and women and address
villagers’ concerns around water contamination and health of laborers.