Human rights advocate killed in DRC palm oil conflict

Peter Nijenhuis

By |2019-07-23T09:29:08+00:00July 23rd, 2019|Advocacy, Community, Congo Basin, Human Rights|Comments Off on Human rights advocate killed in DRC palm oil conflict

Synchronicity Earth is deeply saddened to report the death of Joël Imbangola Lunea, a human rights advocate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The following contains extracts from the press release published by Synchronicity Earth’s partner Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) and human rights organisation RIAO-RDC. The full article can be read here.

A member of the Congolese environmental and human rights organisation RIAO-RDC has been killed by a security guard of the Canadian palm oil company Feronia Inc. on Sunday, July 21, 2019, near the company’s Boteka plantations in Bempumba, Eqauteur Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Joël Imbangola Lunea was a driver of a motorised boat used to transport people and goods between the villages around Feronia’s Boteka plantations and the city of Mbandaka. He was also a community activist and member of RIAO-RDC, and played a particularly important role in ensuring communications between the local communities and RIAO-RDC.

Joël Imbangola Lunea’s death

At around 3pm, on Sunday July 21, 2019, Mr. Joël was preparing to transport several passengers and their luggage on his small boat, when he was approached by Mr. Boketsu Ebuka (alias “Ebola”), a security guard working at Feronia’s PHC Boteka plantations. Mr. Ebuka accused Mr. Joël of transporting containers of stolen palm oil from Feronia’s plantations. The passengers and other witnesses to the scene say that when Mr. Joel denied the charge, Mr. Ebuka became violent and killed Mr. Joël.

The killing takes place in a context of rising tensions between Feronia and the local communities at the company’s three different plantation sites in the DRC.

Efforts to mediate the conflict

RIAO-RDC is working to try to bring a peaceful solution to the conflict. It led a first mediation process in 2017 that was sabotaged by Feronia when the company pulled out of the process after only a couple of weeks. In November 2018, RIAO-RDC began supporting nine affected communities in another mediation process, this time through the International Complaints Mechanism (ICM) of the German, Dutch and French development banks that finance Feronia.

Since this second mediation process was initiated, RIAO-RDC has faced increased efforts by the company to undermine its work with the communities. Managers of the company have publicly blamed RIAO-RDC for the company’s non-payment of wages to its workers and have sought to discredit RIAO-RDC by accusing the organisation of being an agent for foreign interests. Local members of RIAO-RDC also report that they are facing increased intimidation from Feronia’s security guards.

Harassment from Feronia security

In May 2019, Mr. Joël Imbangola of RIAO-RDC participated in this meeting between the communities affected by Feronia’s plantations and members of the International Complaints Mechanism in Boteka. Image © RIAO-RDC

Mr. Joël accompanied the Director of RIAO-RDC, Mr. Jean-François Mombia Atuku, during the recent visit of the panel of the ICM to the Boteka plantations in May/June 2019. He reported to Mr. Mombia Atuku that he faced increasing harassment from Feronia’s security guards and that he was concerned for his safety.

The communities living within and alongside Feronia’s plantations are routinely harassed by company security guards who accuse them of stealing oil palm fruits from the plantation, even though these communities have been harvesting palm fruits from their community forests and producing palm oil for generations and long before the arrival of Feronia.

RIAO-RDC has previously informed Feronia and its international funders about this regular harassment of community members at Feronia’s plantations and has urged them to take actions to rectify it. RIAO-RDC has also tried unsuccessfully to get local authorities to investigate a previous incident in which a Pygmy couple was killed, after having been accused by Feronia’s security guards of having stolen palm fruits from the company’s Boteka plantations.

Call for further investigation

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. RIAO-RDC is also calling on the relevant international human rights bodies to investigate this incident.

Katy Scholfield, Synchronicity Earth’s Co-Head of Programmes, says “We are deeply saddened to hear of the murder of environment and human rights defender Joël Imbangola Lunea and support RIAO RDC’s call for further investigation by the relevant authorities in the DRC.

“We understand that CDC, the UK’s development finance institution, is one of the majority shareholders in Feronia, and we hope that they too will take swift action to investigate this killing. If you would like to learn more about the work of SE partners in the DRC and more widely in West and Central Africa to challenge industrial palm oil expansion in the DRC and how you can help, please get in touch.”

Mr. Joël leaves behind his wife and five children. He was the sole income earner of the family. 

For more information, the full article can be read here and a history of the agriculture conflicts in this area can be read here.

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