DRC: Mystery and collusion in the disappearance of environmental defenders fighting palm oil multinationals

Kilalo Press | 3 May 2024  

DRC: Mystery and collusion in the disappearance of environmental defenders fighting palm oil multinationals

By Franck Zongwe Lukama

On Tuesday, April 30, 2024, a shocking act of repression took place in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a meeting of shareholders of Plantation et Huilerie du Congo (PHC) from different countries. Environmental rights defenders were arrested, and an environmental journalist was abducted after displaying three banners denouncing the mistreatment by the PHC company.

This event followed a letter from RIAO – DRC addressed to PHC in April 2024, which led the officials of this multinational company to urgently organize a meeting in Kinshasa. The protesters also demanded that the company establish a board of directors to avoid perpetuating the violation of people’s rights through the national director, who refuses to respect the clauses without the authorization of the non-existent board of directors. This peaceful action aimed to exert pressure on the senior officials of PHC and the government to uphold the demands of the affected communities. The protesters particularly demanded the release of unjustly imprisoned communities, compensation for work accidents, retirees, and other legitimate claims. Additionally, they called for the opening of the Lokutu and Boteka ports, asserting that they are public thoroughfares and not the property of PHC.

This action also aimed to urge the state authorities present to act in accordance with an open letter from the Réseau d’Information et d’Appui aux ONG (RIAO) – DRC and its partners, regarding certain claims related to the mediation of the ICM, funded by the German Bank (DEG) and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) in favor of the communities affected by PHC. Unfortunately, the security forces were called on the order of some members of PHC to suppress the protesters, vandalize their work equipment, and abduct the journalist and environmental defender. The national information and support network for NGOs, RIAO-RDC, issued an urgent appeal to the security authorities and all stakeholders to promptly locate their members, Dieumerci Mpay Ngomba, and the cameraman journalist from Numerica TV in Kinshasa.

The RIAO-RDC NGO described these actions as “kidnapping” and emphasized that defenders of the rights of forest communities in the DRC should not fall victim to politicization or rights violations. This organization urges the judiciary to play its role in finding the two individuals and ensuring their safety, in line with the principles of press freedom and human rights. Several analysts have raised questions following this situation:

What is the responsibility of state authorities in protecting environmental defenders and journalists who denounce environmental abuses?
What are the interests at stake for certain stakeholders to violently suppress legitimate claims for the rights of affected communities?
How can the international community contribute to exerting pressure for the release of the disappeared environmental defenders and journalist?

The current situation of environmental defense rights is alarming because, according to this organization, the head of the Batetela Ciat sub-OPJ, who handled the case, indicated that Dieumerci was arrested based on a complaint filed by PHC. At the General Prosecutor’s Office near the Court of Appeal of Kinshasa Gombe under 6023/a/2022/KON, the protesters would have been arrested for incitement to breaches against public authority, as provided and punished by article 135 of the Congolese penal code book 2. The organization claims to be aware of the primary target of the PHC company, namely Jean François Mombia Atukua, as he had previously organized a disguised march at the base in Lokutu against RIAO and its director.

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