Gates Foundation Among Investors Backing Troubled DRC Palm Plantation
by Ashoka Mukpo
- The Oakland Institute has named the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with the endowments of the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis as among the top investors in Kuramo Capital Management (KCM).
- KCM is the majority owner of Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC), which operates three oil palm plantations in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.
- According to the Oakland Institute, Congolese police and PHC security forces have been repeatedly accused of violence against local villagers over the past year.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with a number of prominent U.S. university endowments are among the top investors in a troubled set of oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report from the Oakland Institute. Researchers with the group told Mongabay that in the past year, incidents of brutality by police and security guards against local villagers and workers at the plantations had increased.
“We have a long history of abuses, but this last year has been really, really bad and actually there has been an increase in violence and repression of local communities,” said Frédéric Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute.
The plantations lie in the remote, forested north of the DRC, and are operated by Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC). They were originally established in 1911 when the British industrialist William Lever, founder of Unilever, received a grant of land from Belgian colonial authorities then occupying the Congo. Some of the rural villagers living on that land were subsequently pressed into forced labor on the plantations.
In 2009, Unilever sold its stake in PHC’s 100,000-hectare (247,000-acre) oil palm holdings to the Canadian company Feronia, who received $150 million from European development banks to finance the venture. But after a decade of deep losses caused in part by a crash in the price of palm oil, Feronia declared bankruptcy. With assistance from the banks, in 2019 the bulk of PHR’s ownership was sold at a bargain valuation to Kuramo Capital Management (KCM), helmed and founded by Walé Adeosun, once a member of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.
According to the Oakland Institute, among KCM’s largest investors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the endowment funds of the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis. South Africa’s Government Employees Pension Fund and the U.K.’s Royal County of Berkshire Pension Fund were also among those investing with KCM.
Mousseau said that despite the involvement of development banks like the U.K.’s CDC Group and financing from prominent international investors, villagers living near PHC’s three plantations continue to suffer physical abuse at the hands of security forces and exposure to environmental hazards.
“What we’ve heard from our contacts there is that there have been many incidents during the past year,” Mousseau told Mongabay. “In September there was a bad one when police and security guards damaed houses and beat people.”