With the world’s second-largest tropical forests and 80 million hectares of arable land, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) natural resources should be a blessing for its people. Instead, they are fuelling a scramble for wealth and power. The spread of agro-industrial parks – a false solution to the poverty and food security challenges facing DRC, according to local activists – must be halted, and rethought.
Backed by the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB), the DRC government launched the idea in the early 2000s in the hope that such parks would boost economic growth, encourage private and foreign investments, and increase agricultural exports.
Yet giant agri-business projects are eroding the goals the EU and timber-producing countries fight to achieve through, for example, the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPAs) – goals such as recognition of communities’ rights and inclusive development benefits. Both the DRC and the EU are working together to ensure the DRC’s forests and land resources are managed sustainably, including through the Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI) and by negotiating a VPA to improve forest governance.
The model epitomised by the failure of Bukanga Lonzo agro-industrial park pilot is heavily criticised for undermining national interests and threatening smallholders’ livelihoods and access to affordable land. Matthieu Yela, coordinator of the Congolese NGO Cercle pour la défense de l'environnement (CEDEN), argues that agro-industrial parks fuel the privatisation of rural land and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of foreign entrepreneurs and a political elite.
In Bukanga Lonzo, for example, villagers reportedly received ‘compensation’ that included cigarettes, beer, one chainsaw, USD 7,000 in cash and a motorbike, and were targeted violently by police if they attempted to access their land. CEDEN and other civil society organisations in DRC are urging the World Bank and AfdB to rethink these investments and support small-scale agriculture policies that strengthen local ownership and practices in line with DRC’s vision instead.
DRC is not the only country suffering from agri-business projects that end up being ‘white elephants’. In recent years, the Congo Basin has become the new frontier for the development of large-scale plantations for palm oil, rubber and cocoa. Local civil society groups are protesting the land grabs, multiple human rights abuses, pollution and health hazards, massive deforestation, corruption and legal disputes associated with such projects as the Atama plantation in Republic of the Congo and Herakles Farms in Cameroon.
Beyond the responsibility of the World Bank and the AfDB lies that of the donors supporting and leading these institutions, including several EU Member States. As financiers of the World Bank, the EU should not contribute any funds that will lead to land grabbing or create more rural poverty. NGOs are also particularly vigilant that two key EU schemes, the External Investment Plan and the Africa-Europe Alliance for a sustainable African agri-food sector, will ensure additional development benefits and minimise risks for people, forests and the climate.
Fern stands with CEDEN and local farmers in the DRC in demanding greater accountability from the World Bank, and policy coherence from the EU. Local people must have a chance to live decently from their land and trust that the EU, as a major importer of agricultural commodities, will support sustainable development in forested countries.