A report published this summer by food rights NGO GRAIN links a Canadian palm oil company, part owned by the UK Government, to human rights abuses and land grabbing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Feronia is a Canadian agri-business which has been accused of rights violations against local people including “illegally occupying their land, subjecting them to horrific work in plantations and leaving their communities destitute”. According to the report, most workers are paid as little as $1.50 a day, below the country’s minimum wage and contributing to widespread poverty in the region surrounding the plantations. Feronia’s CEO has acknowledged that low pay is a problem.
Some community members also accuse the company’s guards of harsh punishment for even the most minor crimes, including physical abuse. Wages are paid by unit of work completed, but some workers claim that the amount of work expected of them is impossible to complete in a single day – thereby contributing to the low wage problem. Locals also claim that the company’s operations have destroyed the local ecology and food systems.
A large part of Feronia’s funding comes from Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) – organisations which provide credit, often in the form of high risk loans, to privately financed projects in developing countries. Their role is specifically to fund projects which might find it difficult to attract money otherwise, but expect to have a significant impact in respect to poverty alleviation. Together, DFIs own about 70% of Feronia. They include CDC Group, the UK Government’s DFI, which has a 27% stake in the company. UK Government investment funds are legally required to support poverty alleviation programmes, and to refrain from supporting organisations which engage in human rights violations or land grabs. While CDC Group says that it is working to improve pay and conditions for workers on the plantations, it highlights the difficulty of overcoming decades of war and low investment.
Feronia is a major employer in DRC, with around 3,500 workers, and so wields enormous employment power. According to the GRAIN report, community-owned land in the region has been swallowed up by palm oil production, leaving locals little choice but to accept the poor working conditions on offer.
The historical basis of this current system is a story familiar to many across Africa.The DRC was under Belgian colonial occupation between 1908 and 1960, during which period land was taken from communities all along the length of the Congo River to establish oil palm plantations. Belgian oil palm plantation development was backed by King Leopold II’s brutal colonial forces, which created a massive labour camp in the Congo and contributed to the deaths of an estimated 10 million people.
GRAIN claim that the establishment of these plantations was financed by Lever Brothers (a British manufacturing company which went on to become Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies). In 1911 it says that Lever Brothers was given access to 67,000 square km of DRC land by the government – and that this was the beginning of Unilever’s 100 year palm oil production in the country.
In 2009, when Feronia purchased the plantations from Unilever, it claims to have inherited the associated land rights. However, community members argue that the documentation shown to them does not have any legal basis – pointing to these colonial beginnings. They also view the stark juxtaposition between those living on Feronia land and the neighbouring communities as evidence of the impoverishment caused by the company and Unilever before it. GRAIN says that neighbouring communities have “forests and farmlands that provide them with food, medicines and livelihoods”. While the DFIs have insisted that Feronia carry out an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of its oil palm operations, communities are calling for a more sweeping redistribution of land and compensation for the suffering endured during the past 100 years.
The DRC’s story – and fight for the rights of Feronia’s workers – raises important questions about the legitimacy of access to land more generally. If we accept that Unilever’s acquisition was unfair or illegal 100 years ago – then we must accept that there is a case for a present day rebalancing of land inequality. But, if not, then surely there will always be a point in time where a given piece of land changed hands under dubious circumstances. In that sense, those with a big enough historical picture must accept that all land ownership is illegitimate.
In The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi argues that land is a ‘fictitious commodity’. Land is unlike normal products which can be bought and sold for two reasons. First, it is finite, and people are not. Second, it is not subject to the normal market principle of choice. We all need access to land in order to succeed in the basic functions of life. Therefore our present system of land ownership is based on a false premise: that if prices get too high, or if availability gets too low, then we can produce more land or simply choose not to use land.
Whether or not you accept the historical legitimacy of Feronia’s operations – for the people of the DRC this inconvenient truth bears daily reality.