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Pension and Endowment Funds Linked to Conflict-Plagued Oil Palm in DRC

March 22, 2021

John C. Cannon

  • A new report from the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, reveals that several well-known pension funds, trusts and endowments are invested in a group of oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo accused of environmental and human rights abuses.
  • Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC) was recently purchased by two African private equity investors, and several European development banks have invested millions of dollars in the company’s operations.
  • Accusations of abuses at the hands of police and plantation-contracted security guards have dogged the company, most recently with the death of a protester in February 2021.

Well-known investment funds in the U.S., Europe and South Africa are financing a set of oil palm plantations that have been at the center of more than a century of discord in the northeastern quadrant of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a new report from the Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank.

People from communities around the Boteka, Lokutu and Yaligimba plantations managed by Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC) say that their ancestors’ land was stolen from them for a massive palm oil-producing plantation when Belgian colonial officials were in control.

The oil palm concessions cover more than 107,000 hectares (264,000 acres) in three separate locations in DRC. Today, residents say their rights to the land and their livelihoods continue to be sidelined in favor of profits sought by the company and outside investors. The Oakland Institute and other organizations say workers on the plantations are paid little for arduous and dangerous work, including exposure to pesticides used to keep the rows of palms producing their oil-bearing fruit. They have also raised concerns about the nutrient-rich runoff from the plantations that enters local tributaries of the Congo River.

A map shows the locations of the three oil palm plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

Despite the publicity around these issues, several major foundations, endowments and pension funds based in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa have continued to invest in funds that support PHC’s operations. In the past decade, European development banks have also funneled tens of millions of dollars into the plantations.

“While several of the investors claim to promote socially conscious and environmentally sustainable investments, they have turned a blind eye to the legacy of abuses in the PHC concessions,” Andy Currier, the report’s author, said in a statement. Currier added that complicated ownership structures allow these funds to “maintain distance from the extensive history of documented abuses against the local communities, while seeking a profitable return on their investment.”

The most recently documented of those abuses came in mid-February 2021, when a resident of a community near the Lokutu plantation named Blaise Mokwe was arrested. He was accused of having stolen oil palm fruit from the plantations and arrested by PHC-contracted security guards. While Mokwe was in custody, he was beaten, and days later, he died.

On March 1, PHC offered its condolences to his family on its website.

“The Company is cooperating fully with the police and other authorities in Lokutu as they investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr. Mokwe’s death, and allegations that it was the result of injuries caused by staff working for a security subcontractor to PHC,” it said in a statement. “The Company has suspended those alleged to be involved in this incident with immediate effect, pending the results of the investigation.”

The coffin of Blaise Mokwe, a community member who allegedly died at the hands of plantation security guard. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

But the Oakland Institute and the organizations it partners with in DRC say Mokwe’s violent death is but a part of a violent legacy that has continued irrespective of who is in charge. In addition to the exposure to the chemicals necessary for industrial agriculture, community members are not able to access even the forested parts of the concessions that could provide sources of food or medicine, the groups say.