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Development Banks to Address Palm Oil Abuses in DR Congo

Implementing Commitments Would Protect Tens of Thousands on Plantations

“I don’t have gloves; when we pick up the fruit bunches it hurts us,” said a palm fruit harvester that has worked for the company for over a decade. “Sometimes the fruit bunches fall on people or animals’ excrement.” Boteka, November 17, 2018. © 2018 Luciana Téllez/Human Rights Watch.
Four European development banks have announced they will require a major palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo to take steps to redress human rights abuses recently reported by Human Rights Watch.

The 95-page report, A Dirty Investment, concluded that Feronia, which is financed by the four banks, was responsible for health and labor rights abuses, and environmental harm.

The banks responded on the same day as the report launch, saying they would require the company to take a series of measures to deal with the violations. Feronia employs more than 10,000 workers through its subsidiary in Congo, and its plantations are home to more than 100,000 people.

Human Rights Watch found that the company exposes workers to toxic pesticides and engages in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages. The company’s factories also dump untreated industrial waste that may have contaminated the only source of drinking water for several hundred villagers. It was the development banks’ obligation to prevent and redress abuses, but their monitoring and accountability mechanisms failed to do so.

The government-owned banks – Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – have invested US$100 million in the company since 2013. CDC Group also owns 38 percent of Feronia.

Human Rights Watch conducted more than 200 interviews for the report and traveled 1,200 kilometers on the Congo River to reach people in the remote plantations.

The measures the banks announced include addressing labor rights violations that result in extremely low wages, ensuring wage parity between men and women, addressing villagers’ concerns around water contamination, and taking steps to protect the health of laborers who spray pesticides.

Human Rights Watch will continue to engage the banks over the implementation of these measures. What is still lacking, however, is a commitment to address the monitoring and accountability failures that allowed for these abuses to happen under their watch. The banks should carry out structural reforms, including strengthening monitoring and accountability mechanisms, that would not only protect thousands of workers in Congo, but also protect the rights of people affected by the more than 2,000 projects the banks are involved in across the developing world, where they control billions of dollars in investments.

 

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