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Interview: A Toxic Mix of Abuses on Congo’s Oil Palm Plantations - How European Development Banks Fail the Very People They Claim to Assist

The largest agricultural employer in the Democratic Republic of Congo is Plantations et Huileries du Congo S.A. (PHC). In a country where two-thirds of the population live in poverty, PHC employs thousands on its oil palm plantations. The company, a subsidiary...Feronia...has received millions of dollars from the development banks of four European countries – Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The employment provided by PHC could be critical in lifting people out of poverty and improving their lives. However, many workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, paid extremely low wages, or housed along streams of industrial waste. Birgit Schwarz speaks to researcher Luciana Téllez-Chávez about her new report, the role of development banks, and what needs to change to keep development money from funding labor abuses and pollution...

[Birgit Schwarz]: What abuses did you find?

[Luciana Téllez-Chávez]: We spoke to more than 100 workers across the company’s 3 plantations and found that workers who applied or mixed pesticides didn’t have adequate equipment to protect them from toxic chemicals, abusive employment practices resulted in extremely low wages, especially for women, and the company dumps untreated, foul-smelling waste in rivers and next to workers’ homes, a practice that appears to have contaminated the only drinking water source for hundreds of villagers downstream...

[Birgit Schwarz]: What kind of pesticides are being used on PHC’s plantations?

Half of the active ingredients in the pesticides PHC uses are considered hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). Most have properties that cause skin problems and severe eye damage. One of the pesticides used can cause cancer, and Germany is planning to ban it by 2023. European regulators recently recommended revoking the permit for another pesticide used on PHC plantations because it can affect the nervous system.

[Birgit Schwarz]: Was the plantation workers’ health affected by these pesticides?

[Luciana Téllez-Chávez]: Over 200 workers spray or mix pesticides on PHC plantations. Each day, sprayers will treat between 300 and 600 palm trees and mixers will blend 200 gallons (approximately 757 liters) of pesticide formula. They are handling huge volumes of toxic chemicals. We interviewed more than 40 of these workers. Two-thirds of them told us that they had become impotent since they started the job. Many suffered from skin irritation, itchiness, blisters, eye problems, or blurred vision – all symptoms that are consistent with what scientific texts and the products’ labels describe as health consequences of exposure to these pesticides...  

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