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Colonial Legacy of Exploitation Thrives Today on the PHC Oil Palm Plantations

May 3, 2022
By: Andy Currier
Comment l'exploitation coloniale se perpétue dans les Plantations de Palmiers à Huile PHC en RDC
Community members of Mwingi near the disputed land of the Lokutu concession.
Community members of Mwingi near the disputed land of the Lokutu concession. © Oskar Epelde

“There has been a surprisingly consistent pattern in the Congo over the centuries. Outsiders want some commodity the territory possesses. They extract the commodity, causing the deaths of thousands or millions of people in the process. They justify their seizure by portraying themselves as generous-hearted. A few brave souls blow the whistle and portray the exploitation that is going on. The world sometimes briefly pays attention. Then the cycle begins again with a new commodity.”

Adam Hochschild, Introduction for Lord Leverhulme's ghosts

On September 14, 2021, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) soldiers and industrial guards from the Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC) allegedly destroyed dozens of homes, “committed systematic looting in several villages, including torture and kidnapping of civilians from communities surrounding the plantations.” A few months later, in January 2022, local NGO RIAO-RDC reported that after a group of PHC workers at the Boteka plantation went on strike in protest of poor wages, PHC called in the police and military who opened fire on the protestors, seriously wounding two workers. A year earlier, in February 2021, two young men, Blaise Mokwe and Efolafola Nisoni Manu, were allegedly killed by security forces after being accused of stealing from the company. To this day, PHC has failed to explain the circumstances of these deaths.

PHC Shifting Blame

While PHC recognizes the ongoing structural violence against community members living in the areas where the company operates, it shifts the blame onto state police and security forces. In a January 2022 communication to the Oakland Institute, the company stated: “illegal activities are referred to local authorities whose actions are beyond PHC’s control.” PHC claims that “all-time high palm oil prices” have led to an “increase in palm fruit theft at our sites by community members, which has produced a corresponding increase in law enforcement activity by local police.” To explain the arbitrary arrest of a community member, PHC stated that an “illegal artisanal palm oil mill” was found at the individual’s residence in addition to palm fruit stolen from PHC.

In late March and early April 2022, local NGOs reported that security forces destroyed homes, cassava fields, and palm jars (a vital source of income for elder citizens) allegedly located on “PHC’s land.” In late March, the police burned a supposedly “illegal” camp set up on the concession to produce alcohol derived from oil palm to the ground. While PHC released a statement noting that the use of fire poses a high risk to the safety of the community, it said it “respects the judgment of local authorities who have deemed the use of fire necessary in this case.”

Justifications offered by PHC for the horrific violence faced by local communities must be juxtaposed against the 110-year history of these oil palm plantations in the Congo.

Workers on the HCB oil palm plantations
Workers on the HCB oil palm plantations
Workers on the HCB oil palm plantations © H. Nicolaï, 1955

A Brief History of PHC's Oil Palm Plantations in Congo

The plantations were established in the early 20th century by Belgian colonizers. As examined in a 2015 report from GRAIN, when they ventured down the Congo River in what is now the Equateur and Oriental Provinces of the DRC, Belgians found forests full of high yielding oil palm trees. What began as trading bags of salt for a couple of hectares of these forested lands quickly escalated into marginalizing Indigenous peoples on to smaller and smaller areas while the oil palm plantations under Belgian control rapidly grew in size. As Gaspard Bosenge Akoko, an elected member of the Oriental Province parliament, summarized: “They took all these lands without a single legal document.”

In 1911, Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB), the company established by soap magnate William Lever, received massive areas of oil palm concessions at a bargain price from the colonial authorities. In England, Lever had a reputation as a model employer providing relatively good working conditions to those in his factories. In the Congo however, he relied on land theft, coerced labor, and a monopoly enforced by the colonial regime to grow his profits.

Indigenous peoples in the Congo cultivated oil palm for their own uses long before the arrival of Europeans. Oil palm groves were widespread and communities could harvest, trade, and sell the palm nuts they collected and benefit as the owners. As analyzed by Belgian diplomat and historian Jules Marchal, this resulted in HCB struggling to recruit workers, as locals had no interest to work on Lever’s concessions as wage-laborers “on the pittance he chose to pay them.”

Workers on the HCB oil palm plantations
Workers on the HCB oil palm plantations © H. Nicolaï, 1955

Early attempts at forcibly recruiting workers with armed auxiliaries were met with resistance by communities. HCB sought support from the colonial authorities to ensure they could recruit an adequate workforce. Police stations were established around the concessions and with the backing of the colonial authorities, HCB coerced a consistent workforce across its areas of operation. Villagers who refused to work for the company were imprisoned under charges of “absenteeism” for failing in their “duty to work” and often beaten with a “chicotte,” a whip made from dried rhinoceros skin. Those who worked but failed to meet their daily harvest quotas faced a similarly harsh punishment.

With a steady labor supply, HCB next leveraged the colonial government into allowing them to operate a monopoly on oil palm trade in the Belgian Congo. “Natives” were prohibited from selling oil palm fruit to traders in the area and treated as “thieves” if caught. Leverhulme justified the monopoly by highlighting the jobs, schools, and medical facilities the company provided despite the poor quality of the services and their limited use by locals who were too busy working for the company. In just a few decades, local communities went from growing, harvesting, and selling oil palm on their land to being left with few options but to harvest for HCB on the “company’s land” — regardless of the pitiful wages they received.

Over a century later, the situation has scarcely changed for communities living adjacent to what is now known as the PHC oil palm plantations. Livelihoods for communities in Lokutu, Yaligimba, and Boteka in DRC remain severely impacted by the lack of access to land — hunger and poverty are widespread while the dumping of untreated industrial waste has polluted a major source of drinking water. Having lost their lands and reduced to working as laborers on the plantations, local villagers work for poor wages in unsafe working conditions.

One thing that has changed is the ownership of the company. The Lever Brother’s soap company eventually became today’s corporate behemoth Unilever, which held onto the plantations until 2009. It was then sold to a Canadian company named Feronia, which went bankrupt in 2020 despite substantial financing from several Western development banks. New York-based investment management firm Kuramo Capital Management now retains majority control over the plantations.

High Profile Investors Profiting from Land Theft, Human Rights Abuses

As detailed in a February 2022 Oakland Institute report, Meet the Investors Behind the PHC Oil Palm Plantations in DRC, a number of high profile investors are now those profiteering from the land theft and human rights abuses taking place on the PHC oil palm plantations. These include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, several US schools and universities (University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University, and Kamehameha Schools), and pension funds from the United Kingdom and South Africa (the Royal County of Berkshire Pension Fund, the South African Government Employees Pension Fund and Public Investment Corporation).

PHC ownership chart
University endowments, pension funds and philanthropic foundations have together invested over a hundred million dollars into funds managed by Kuramo Capital Management, who retain majority ownership over the PHC oil palm concessions. Photo: Palm tree plantation near Yangambi, DRC © Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Despite being informed about the continuing abuses taking place on the PHC plantations, none of Kuramo Capital Management’s investors appear to have taken action. Neither PHC nor Kuramo Capital Management has remedied the arbitrary arrests, violence, or poor working conditions inflicted on the communities living adjacent to the plantations.

PHC’s attempt to distance itself from the aforementioned abuses does not change the fact that the company calls in local authorities and security forces that use unchecked and overwhelming force and inflict severe human rights abuses to protect its interests. Declaring an artisanal palm oil mill as “illegal” and claiming any palm fruits found must have been stolen actually demonstrate how the company’s attitude towards community members remains unchanged from the colonial times. PHC operates as if it has a monopoly on oil palm in the area, views community members solely as labor, and punishes any activities outside of this exploitive relationship with brutal repression.

PHC says that it desires to engage with local villages and authorities to determine and mitigate the root causes of the “incidences” of violence. It also claims to invest heavily in “its” communities and highlights that it provides employment. However the strife between the company, locals, and NGOs is intense — as demonstrated by the violence over the past year. PHC ignores that ultimately, its occupation of people’s land and repression of livelihood activities it considers illegal, is a key driver of poverty in the area.

Truckload of oil palm fruits
Truckload of oil palm fruits © Dominique Lumpempe Kangamina

Impacted villagers continue to courageously protest poor working conditions and remain committed to obtain the return of their ancestral land. Just as those profiteering from the soap HCB produced a century ago turned a blind eye to how the palm oil was harvested, investors in the plantations — including universities, foundations and pension funds — have chosen to accept the company’s version of events today, in pursuit of high returns.

The Lokutu, Yaligimba, and Boteka communities have waited far too long for their rights to land and life to be restored; investors must be held responsible for their continued inaction.