Resistance to exploitative palm oil production in the DRC: the centrality of direct action
The palm oil processing plant in Lokutu (Judith Verweijen)
In 2009, Canadian-owned Feronia took over Unilever’s 76.17% interest in Plantations et huileries du Congo(PHC, Plantations and Plant oil factories of the Congo). The company was listed on the Toronto stock exchange in 2010, yet its share price plummeted, and it accumulated vast losses. Multilateral banks and European development finance institutions–including the British CDC group and German, Belgian and Dutch development banks– desperately tried to save the company. They obtained a large part of its shares and injected over 150 million dollar between 2013 and 2020.
Despite these efforts, the company went bankrupt in July 2020, having accumulated a debt of over 160 million dollars. The development banks then authorized a Mauritius-based private equity fund comprised of African investors, Straight KKM 2 Ltd, to obtain a large part of the shares while writing off much of the debt.
For many of the plantations’ neighbours, these changes in ownership structure are difficult to comprehend. What they know for certain is that despite this restructuring, their wellbeing has not improved. According to a doctor working in a local health center, in most of Yahuma, children are severely malnourished.
Guardian of freed slaves or enslaver?
In the colonial era, a large part of people’s land and forests were expropriated by the company without adequate compensation. As one leader explains: “It was in 1911, in that period, the white man dominated the black man, there was no dialogue. They took it [their lands] by force. During the colonial era there was no discussion, no agreed upon social investment, not a single agreement”. Today, local inhabitants face a shortage of land to cultivate and no longer have forests in which to hunt and collect plants. As a result, they are struggling to make ends meet.
The company’s environmental impacts further impoverish the population. A village chief in Yahuma testifies: “The pesticides kill many trees, the water is bad. There is pollution, there is deforestation. And the land has become infertile”. Another local leader explains that snails and snakes have become locally extinct, and that because of the polluted water, fish have become deformed. Moreover, their livestock consume toxic water and plants; when villagers consume the meat, they get sick in turn. These testimonies corroborate a recent reportby Human Rights Watch that uncovers the company’s irresponsible use of toxic pesticides.
In this context, the company’s name gains an ironic twist. According to its website Feronia is named after the eponymous Roman Goddess associated with “wildlife, fertility, health and abundance and also the guardian of freed slaves. The Company’s name embodies its goal of developing agriculture in the DRC to free many thousands of people from poverty.”
In contrast to this propaganda, people feel treated like slaves and pushed further into poverty by the corporation. Yet they are less and less inclined to put up with these exploitative relations. “Our ancestors who ceded their land were ignorant. But the newer generations have become aware that since a century and a half, this company that exploits our lands has not done anything for us”, comments a village elder.
Over the past decade, local leaders and associations, often assisted by NGOs, have undertaken numerous initiatives to redress the situation, including writing letters and organizing petitions. In 2018, they lodged acomplaint at the Complaints Mechanism of the German Investment and Development Corporation (DEG), which has led to a dispute resolution process.
Unfortunately, this process has been slow to come off the ground. Crucially, it has so far failed to address one of local inhabitants’ biggest grievances: the hesitant implementation of the so-called cahier des charges, an agreement between company and community listing the social investments the company has committed to, such as building schools and health centers.
Many people believe that direct action has done more to make their voices heard than letters and complaints. As a local leader explains: “If we have managed to obtain a cahier des charges, it is because we have barricaded the roads three or four times. During one or two weeks, people take to the streets despite repression”. Local youth is reported to be at the forefront of this resistance, felling trees to block the road and manning the barricades. With the roads obstructed, palm nuts no longer arrive in the processing plant in Lokutu, which delays production.
Workers at the oil processing plant also take direct action. In July last year, they held a 10-day strike at the factory and allegedly trapped the company’s Area General Manager in his house to protest deteriorating working conditions. All activities in Lokutu were paralysed, with shops, offices and local radio stations having shut their doors.
Back in 2015, people also took direct action against a company team that arrived in their village unannounced, with GPS equipment at hand to geolocate and demarcate the contested boundaries of the concession. “The company came to measure and demarcate these lands that it has exploited since 1911. We went to Makawu, we arrested them and we took away their GPS and ranging rods and took them to the prosecutor’s office”, explains a local leader. As a result, the team was unable to accomplish its mission.
Road next to PHC Feronia plantation in Yahuma (Judith Verweijen)
While direct action can be effective, it is often met with repression. In particular road barricades elicit a heavy-handed response. In the words of a chief: “The first response is repression. It’s just repression. They use the state to chase us away. Police and army. It even entails arrests”.
In September 2019, a number of people from the village of Yalifombo, including the chief, were arrested after the latter had made critical remarks during a traditional ceremony surrounding the planting of new palm trees. Specifically, he had insisted that before planting new trees, the company honours its obligations to the village as listed in the cahier des charges, including the construction of a school, health centre and water bore hole.
Those arrested were directly transferred to the prosecutor’s office in Kisangani, where five of them, the chief amongst them, remained in detention for months. The first hearing took place in January 2020; and only in March this year, one and a half years after their arrest, the detainees were provisionally liberated after paying a bail of around USD1,600. However, the charges against them have not yet been dropped.
Arresting people on trumped up charges drains them both emotionally and financially. In the DRC, prison conditions are abominable. Prisoners rely on their family to bring them food. Yet visitors have to pay off guards to access their relatives. On top of that, detainees are unable to work and earn any income when in jail, which adds to the financial strain put on their families. Those who are accused generally also struggle to find the means for legal counsel. Furthermore, they lack the funds to have witnesses attend the hearings, which is often expensive and difficult due to the vast distances and bad state of the road. The inadequate defense resulting from these circumstances seriously undermines defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Fighting for the future
Despite the dangers, people are determined to hold the company to account, hoping for change now that the company is under new ownership. As a local leader comments: “The communities will continue to reclaim the realization of the promised projects; if not, there will always be disorder”. As the company creates limited employment, many see these social investments as the only concrete return for the dispossession of their land.
Others want their land back and are dead set on holding on to what is left of it. As one village elder states: “I am afraid that they will take away the little bit of my land that remains. If they also take that away, I cannot but cry. The company had already started clearing it to plant palm trees. If we had not resisted, they would have taken all of the land. And if I die, my children will continue to cry. That’s why I fight now, so that they won’t take away my land while I live.”
But the struggle is bound to be a long one. Only last week, the arrest of two youngsters accused of stealing palm nuts by private company security guards unleashed a wave of protests in Yambienene village, triggering massive police deployment and multiple arrests. Hence despite the new ownership, the cycle of direct action countered by direct repression continues—at least for now.
This blogpost is part of a series on socio-environmental struggles in North-eastern DR Congo
Judith Verweijen is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the interplay of violence, conflicts around natural resources and social mobilisation. She focuses on eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has regularly conducted fieldwork since 2010.
Dieudonné Botoko Kendewa holds an engineering degree from the Faculty Institute of Agronomic Sciences of Yangambi. He is currently in charge of the Forestry Management Unit within the NGO OCEAN. He has almost a decade of experience with baseline studies and forest inventories for the management of village forest lands, participatory mapping processes and facilitating negotiations over the social clauses in forest contract specifications. Currently, he is involved in REDD+ and the sustainable production of wood-energy by rural producers in the Kisangani supply basin.