Farming communities abused at troubled DRC mega-farm, campaigners say

  • The Bukanga Lonzo agro-industrial park, located nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Kinshasa, was conceived as a way to boost mechanized food production in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • But now, the park is in shambles, and a new report by the Oakland Institute says that community members were misled and abused during its construction.
  • The primary investor in the park, Africom Commodities, is currently seeking nearly $20 million in damages from the Congolese government for non-payment of expenses at the park.

When then-President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila hoisted himself into a tractor to celebrate the first harvest of the Bukanga Lonzo agro-industrial park on March 5, 2015, it was supposed to be a triumphant moment. Just under 300 kilometers (186 miles) to the east of the capital city Kinshasa, the park had been heralded as a cutting-edge solution to food shortages in the DRC.

Bringing the Congolese government into a “public-private partnership” with a South African company, Africom Commodities, Bukanga Lonzo had the ambitious goal of transforming nearly 800 square kilometers (309 square miles) of land into a mechanized farming behemoth that could supply Kinshasa’s hungry residents with maize, cassava and other food products.

But four years on, the park has nearly collapsed, with production halting amidst finger-pointing between Congolese authorities and the management of Africom Commodities. In May 2018, the company filed a claim worth nearly $20 million at the International Court of Arbitration in Paris, saying the Congolese government had stopped making scheduled payments needed to keep the park running.

A report released Thursday by the U.S.-based watchdog group, The Oakland Institute, states that the park was flawed from the beginning. It alleges that farmers in nearby villages were misled and stripped of their customary land and that a leaked audit report suggests corruption may be partially to blame for the park’s failure.

“You can’t move forward and develop with this idea that you’re going to take resources away from your own people and give them to some foreign investor,” Frederic Mousseau, author of the report and policy director at the Oakland Institute, told Mongabay in an interview.

The Okapi Reserve in DRC. Photo by J. Doremus/USAID.

Proponents of the agro-industrial park model argue that smallholder farmers in countries like the DRC don’t have the skills or equipment to feed their nations on their own. According to the World Food Programme, only 30% of the country’s food supply is produced within its borders. Similar to so-called special economic zones in China, agro-industrial parks are conceived as areas where public funds are spent to attract private investment into mechanized agriculture, typically requiring massive tracts of land and high, upfront spending on infrastructure.

Bukanga Lonzo was to be the first of 22 agro-industrial parks in the DRC, spanning 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles) in total — nearly five times the size of Rhode Island. Special markets were set up in Kinshasa where goods farmed at the park could be sold to the city’s residents.

But according to the report, a leaked audit by Ernst & Young — which was commissioned by the Congolese government in 2015 and has been seen by Mongabay — revealed that the park was beset by mismanagement and questionable financial arrangements from its earliest stages. More than $100 million in public funds was spent on the project, over half of which was transferred directly to Africom Commodities. Unaccounted-for funds and higher-than-normal prices charged for equipment and services described in the audit have raised suspicions of corruption in the park’s management. Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks the DRC as one of the 20 most corrupt countries in the world.

The report also alleges that farming communities who lived in and around the area demarcated for the park were deceived into signing documents that stripped them of their land. One of those documents, called an “Act of Engagement,” describes gifts given to one town that included $7,000, a motorcycle and cases of beer worth $62. But according to Mousseau, residents of the town didn’t know they were signing away the rights to their land and were misled into thinking that the park would provide them with infrastructure like roads, schools and electricity.

“There’s a lot of anger and frustration,” Mousseau said. “People feel like they’ve been ignored and mistreated.”

Mousseau visited Bukanga Lonzo in the summer of 2018, where he says he heard testimony from community members about being tied to a tree and whipped by police when they showed up at the gates of the park looking for work. Others said they were arrested for trespassing when trying to cross parts of the park that had once been their customary land.

“They told me, ‘Tell the world about what’s happening to us,’” Mousseau said.

Patrick Kipalu, who was the DRC country director for the U.K.-based Forest People’s Programme between 2012 and 2018, says he also saw mistreatment of rural farmers during the project’s initial stages.

“They started the project by taking away communities’ land without their consent, using intimidation and all kinds of misplaced government power to evict them from their own customary land,” said Kipalu, who now works for the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C.

Critics say that the park’s troubles aren’t simply a matter of poor management, pointing to what they say are structural flaws with the model itself. In 2009 the Congolese government released a policy that sketched out a plan to boost agricultural productivity by addressing the needs of small-scale farmers, but implementation took a back seat to planning for large-scale, foreign-investment-backed projects like Bukanga Lonzo. Heavily promoted by powerful institutions like the World Bank and the African Development Bank, Mousseau says they’re the wrong way for the DRC to address its food security needs.

“As long as you’re thinking about large-scale industry and investors, you’re missing the point of what’s needed for the farmers,” he said.

John Ulimwengu, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, disagrees. An early supporter of the Bukanga Lonzo park, he said in an email that turnover in key government ministries created a “void in political leadership” that affected funding and oversight. He added that a decline in commodity prices reduced Congolese government revenue, making it hard to carry on with the level of financial support needed to maintain the park.

“Many of those who claim failure have little knowledge of what it takes to trigger sustainable development,” he said, pointing to infrastructure already built at Bukanga Lonzo as examples of the park’s achievements.

The Congolese government appears to share his assessment, announcing a plan in May 2018 to revamp the park with a new focus on livestock.

But Kipalu says that without major changes, the same outcome is likely: “It was an external solution ill-suited for the local context, imposed in a system rooted in corruption. That’s why it didn’t work.”

Banner image: Montane forest in Kahuzi Biega National Park, DRC.Photo by A.J. Plumptre/WCS.

Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist with expertise in international development policy, human rights, and environmental issues. His work has been featured in Al-Jazeera, Vice News, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @unkyoka.

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