Environmentalist murdered near disputed DRC palm oil project

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Killing of Joël Imbangola Lunea allegedly linked to ongoing unrest between local communities and Canadian palm oil giant Feronia-PHC. 

The actions of Feronia-PHC are under intense scrutiny again after a local environmental activist in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was killed reportedly by a security guard working for the palm oil giant.

Joël Imbangola Lunea was killed on 21 July near Boteka, northern DRC, allegedly by a local Feronia-PHC employee who accused him of transporting palm oil stolen from its nearby plantation.

Lunea worked for RIAO-RDC, a Congolese environmental and human rights group that has long protested the Canadian company’s presence and the impact its projects have on communities.

It was reported that at around 3pm local time on Sunday 21 July, Lunea, who operated a small boat service, was preparing to transport passengers across the river when the Feronia-PHC employee accused him of transporting containers of stolen palm oil from the plantation.

The NGO alleges that the security guard then violently attacked the father of five and killed him by strangling.

“RIAO-RDC holds Feronia Inc to be responsible for Mr. Joël’s murder,” director Jean-Frallancois Mombia Atuku said. “Feronia has taken insufficient action over the years to prevent its security guards from harassing local community people over unsubstantiated claims of stealing palm fruits or palm oil.

“RIAO-RDC is now calling on the relevant authorities of the DRC and on the Governor of Equateur Province in particular to make an immediate investigation into the killing of Mr. Joël.”

In a separate email to IDM, Atuku said that according to colleagues in the area, Lunea’s body was only found on 24 July and that the attack occurred between the villages of Bempumba and Bolondo.

In a statement to IDM, a Feronia spokesperson said: “The Company is deeply saddened to learn that one of its employees is being sought by the police in relation to the death of Mr Joël Imbangola Lunea on Sunday 21 July 2019. Police are treating Mr Lunea’s death as murder.

“There are different versions of events being reported and we are attempting to gather the facts of what happened. A number of witnesses have informed the Company that the disagreement which lead to the tragic incident was of a personal nature but, with the incident occurring approximately 18 km from Feronia’s plantation, near the employee’s home village, whilst he was on four weeks annual leave, establishing facts is proving difficult.”

When asked for clarity about their employee’s leave period, the company spokesperson said “he was indeed on annual leave (about two weeks into a month, if my memory serves me correctly).”

Disputes between local communities and Feronia's plantations, including its Lokutu operations, have been widely reported. Image courtesy of GRAIN.

A 13,000-hectare plantation, Boteka is one of three Feronia palm oil projects in DRC, which total 100,000 hectares, along with its sprawling Lokutu site and operations in Yaligimba. The company gained control of the plantations in 2008 when it acquired Unilever’s subsidiary Plantations and Huileries du Congo (PHC).

Local villagers have denounced displacement and occupation of their lands since colonial times and throughout Unilever and Feronia’s tenure of the concessions.

Clashes between Feronia-PHC and locals have been widely reported. In March 2019, Congolese military reportedly fired live bullets at protestors in two villages within Feronia’s Lokutu concession.

A mediation process initiated by RIAO-RDC in 2017 failed to deliver any progress and in November 2018 the NGO filed a grievance complaint on behalf of several communities who claim their land has been illegally taken by Feronia-PHC.

The complaint was filed with the Independent Complaints Mechanism (ICM) of the German, Dutch and French development banks – who along with institutions in Spain, Belgium, the UK and the USA, have provided over $180 million in financing to Feronia-PHC since 2013.

The NGO claims that staff are ‘facing increased intimidation’ from Feronia security guards and have accused the organisation of being ‘an agent for foreign interests’.

In his email response to IDM, Atuku said it is critical that international donors sever ties with the firm.

“Despite our denunciations on all levels – with regards forced labor, meager wages, lack of ethics, slander and defamation against our organization, the behaviors [of Feronia] continue and [international donors] continue to finance them,” he said.

“We know that if Feronia continues to kill us, it’s because of the international donors. If they had serious audit systems in place, the events denounced by RIAO-DRC and international partners would have been discovered long ago by these financiers and Joel and others would not have died.”

The World Rainforest Movement (WRM) and GRAIN have joined the calls for an investigation into Lunea’s death and WRM have written an open letter to DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, regional politicians and Feronia-PHC’s international donors urging them to act.

“[We] Impress on the governors of the three provinces where Feronia-PHC operates its disputed oil palm plantations and on the company that members of RIAO-RDC must be able to carry out their work safely,” the letter stated.

A Feronia statement added: “The incident is being investigated by the police, who are also working to apprehend the suspect, and the Company is fully supportive of the police investigation. Everyone at Feronia is shocked and appalled by these events and we extend our heartfelt and sincere condolences to Mr Lunea’s family at this very sad and difficult time.”

Image on homepage shows a satellite image of  Feronia’s Boteka plantation. Courtesy of MapHubs.