In March 2018 Earthsight, the investigative non-profit
behind Illegal Deforestation Monitor, released The Coming Storm, a report exposing the secrecy and collusion in industrial
agriculture which are threatening the Congo Basin’s forests. This post details
our findings from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where old agricultural
projects are being exploited to clear new forest illegally
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, while no major
green-field projects are known to have broken ground, our research indicates
that illegal clearance of natural forest is occurring under the guise of
projects to re-develop abandoned plantations. And while no contracts for new
developments in forest areas have come to light, our researchers encountered a
near-total lack of transparency from relevant government agencies, so it is
impossible to know for sure what additional threats may be developing.
Like its neighbour Congo-Brazzaville, DRC was a signatory to
the 2016 Marrakesh declaration on oil palm development in Africa, which
included a promise of transparency. That same year, the DRC government also
announced that it would make all large-scale agricultural contracts available
to the public via the OpenLandContracts.org website. At the time of the
announcement, it was estimated that there were around 20 such contracts, and it
was expected that these would be uploaded by early 2017. To-date, however,
the only agricultural contracts uploaded to the site are a combined 10,000
hectares of land leases issued in 2009 for a maize development project in
Katanga. Earthsight’s own extensive inquiries yielded only a list of
registered agricultural companies, but nothing about the location, size or
status of any of their projects. If nothing else, the list shows that there are
a number of palm oil companies active in the country about which no information
exists in the public domain.
In late 2016, a decree was being drafted by the Prime
Minister’s office which would make transparency in DRC’s agricultural sector a
legal obligation. Though Earthsight was told by well placed sources within the
government that the decree was due to be formally adopted in early 2017, we
have since learned that progress with the new law has stalled. The government’s
promises have come to nothing.
The absence of transparency in the sector in DRC is
especially concerning given what we have heard is really happening behind this
veil of secrecy.
Since 2002, authorisations have been required in DRC for
clearing any area of forest greater than two hectares. Yet to-date not a single
such permit has been issued by the Forestry department to an agricultural firm. The
answer to this apparent conundrum was supplied by a former senior official at
the Ministry of Environment in DRC to whom Earthsight spoke in late 2017. He
said that the industrial agriculture sector in the country was a veritable
free-for-all, with companies being allowed to clear forest without required
deforestation permits or impact assessments and without paying relevant taxes.
The official refrained from naming names. But Earthsight has
uncovered one large company which appears to confirm the situation as he
Palm oil plantation in DR Congo, September 2017
A Burnt-Out Case: CCP in DRC
Graham Greene’s classic novel ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ has as one
of its principal characters the Belgian manager of an oil palm plantation deep
in the heart of the Congo. The novel’s setting was based on a real-life
location near Basankusu, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The
colonial-era palm plantation still exists, and its recent activities make for
quite a story in their own right.
The plantation is now operated by Compagnie de Commerce et
Plantation (CCP), a subsidiary of Groupe Blattner Elwyn (GBE), a powerful
conglomerate in DR Congo controlled by its eponymous owner, a colourful
American expatriate. As well as a series of palm and rubber plantations, GBE’s
holdings include a bank, an airline and DRC’s largest logging company. Elwyn
Blattner built much of his family’s Congolese business empire during the reign
of the kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko, buying – at knock-down prices – companies
seized from their Belgian owners by the dictator. In September 2017, Mr
Blattner was reportedly arrested by DRC authorities, for unclear charges
relating to the spectacular collapse of his group’s bank, BIAC, the previous
year. He was later released on bail.
Blattner’s companies control an area of DRC’s forest more
than half the size of Switzerland. The group’s main logging company – SIFORCO –
produces a quarter of all the timber harvested in the entire country. In a
2015 report, the NGO Global Witness accused the company of being one of the
worst offenders in a forestry sector it found was rife with illegality and
abuse. To give just one example, the officially-mandated Independent
Observer of Forest Law Enforcement discovered that in 2013 one of SIFORCO’s
concessions had cut 50% more trees than authorised – 26,000 cubic metres of illegal
timber, much of it of prohibited species, worth millions of dollars.
GBE is one of DRC’s largest agribusiness firms, controlling
more than 42,000 hectares of land for the production of palm, rubber and cocoa.
Among its holdings are the CCP plantations, Lisafa and Ndeke, which cover around
6,900 hectares. GBE took control of these plantations between 1987 and
Over the last year, Earthsight has examined these
plantations in detail, analysing satellite images and carrying out field
research in partnership with a local NGO, the Group for Action to Save Man and
the Environment (GASHE). Though hampered by a lack of public access to
documents, we uncovered evidence of numerous illegalities by the company.
Our findings indicate that CCP has illegally converted an
estimated 1,860 hectares of natural forest to palm oil plantations, without the
required deforestation permits. They also reveal that the company is operating
without a required Social Environmental Impact Assessment or Management Plan.
We also discovered that the company is in conflict with local communities in
all six of theplantation areas we visited, who allege that it has failed to
fulfil its obligations to them. Our findings even call into question the
company’s rights over much of the land it occupies.
The conversion of natural forest was assessed using
satellite imagery and confirmed by interviews with local people. Most of this
conversion occurred at the Lisafa plantation, including in an area known as the
Towsi forest. The company’s activities in this area have been a source of
conflict with communities, who told GASHE’s investigators that the company was
still clearing forest in the area as recently as 2015. Inquiries by the
mandated Independent Forest Monitor had previously confirmed that no
deforestation permit had been issued to the company.
At village after village, we heard story after story of
broken promises and shattered livelihoods. The Chief of Nkoy-Moke village, for
example, claimed that CCP had converted 1,200 hectares of forest on their
customary land between 2009 and 2011. A resident of another village affected by
the same deforestation, Nkoy-monene, said that as a result of the company’s
activities, “we will no longer have forest areas for our children. The
scarcity of non-timber forest products is causing malnutrition in our villages.”
On its website, GBE claims to be supporting local communities by building and
equipping schools, but field research reveals that many promised schools were
never finished or never equipped. Another villager said that “although the
company exploits our forests, we still live in poverty. My population does
not benefit from CCP. They started building a school in 2005 and it is still
not finished.” GBE’s apparent failings in this regard should not come as
too much of a surprise, since the group has a long history of failing to
deliver on its obligations to communities in its logging concessions.
In addition to the evidence of other apparent illegalities,
our research also suggests that the titles giving the company rights over the
land may themselves be invalid. We were able to obtain 16 land registration
certificates issued to CCP in 2010, covering a total of just over 3,000
hectares, but found these had been issued by local authorities, whereas the law
requires them to be issued by provincial or central government. Local land
officials admitted to GASHE that the licensing was improper, but said that in
this case, “politics are above the law”.
Earthsight wrote to GBE to offer them an opportunity to
respond to our findings, but they did not reply.
For full references and source information, see the full report