UK government funding environment-wrecking extractive projects with histories of human rights abuse

Palm oil monoculture plantations fill the view into the distance.
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The UK government recently came under scrutiny for using development aid to fund projects which have violated the human rights of communities in the Global South. Research by the Canary however, suggests that this could be a systemic issue.

On 6 June, a House of Commons Select Committee convened for an inquiry session to review the work of the UK government’s international development corporation. The International Development Committee is a parliamentary body which scrutinises the activity and spending of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO).

The meeting examined British International Investment (BII), the UK’s national development finance institution. The FCDO owns 100% of the shares in the company. BII invests UK aid funding in programmes and businesses throughout lower and middle income countries across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

As reported by the Guardian, UK taxpayer’s money has financed projects in Africa where citizens have leveled serious human rights allegations. In Kenya for instance, hospital staff detained patients who could not pay their medical bills. Speaking to the committee, the UK minister for development, Andrew Mitchell said that the issue had since been addressed.

Meanwhile, the committee also highlighted a palm oil plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The project had exposed workers to dangerous chemicals and polluted the local environment with untreated industrial waste. Mitchell confirmed that the UK has since exited this investment.

However, the Canary has found that BII has active investments in multiple extractive and industrial projects where communities have raised rights concerns.

Extractive industries known for human rights abuse

The Canary looked at British International Investment’s (BII) company database. The research explored a range of projects in key extractive sectors known for human rights abuses. BII is financing large agribusiness, logging and mining companies across the Global South. For a number of these, media outlets, non-profits and researchers have identified that projects had caused violence against local communities.

Read on...

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Notable among the projects is a multimillion-dollar investment in Zambeef, Zambia’s largest beef producer. The company operates cattle, maize, soy, wheat and palm oil on five estates spanning 100,000 hectares. On three of Zambeef’s estates, communities have reported land disputes with the company.

The UK’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) – now BII – has also held investments in the 46,874 hectare Mpongwe estate since the 1980s. It has done so through a joint venture with the Zambian government. Mpongwe has been at the centre of local community land conflict and court battles against Zambeef since 2003.

Despite these land disputes, the UK’s CDC made a $65m investment in the company in 2016. BII lists this financing as ongoing.

Forestry plantations and violence

While BII has exited its investment in the palm oil project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it maintains active investments in palm plantations elsewhere.

In Thailand, a BII-funded palm oil company has been implicated in the attempted murder of a community land defender. An employee of United Oil Palm Industry Public Co.Ltd (UPOIC) attempted to assassinate land rights defender Dam On-muang in October 2020. The UPOIC employee has since been convicted.

Meanwhile, reports of violent evictions of 10,000 villagers from a forest reserve did not stop BII investing in the company responsible. In 2002, Global-Woods AG cleared community forest lands for a 12,182-hectare saw log and fuel wood plantation in Uganda.

In 2019, environmental thinktank the Oakland Institute released a damning report on Green Resources, a tree plantation company. It presented evidence that Green Resources had forcibly evicted villagers for a carbon credit plantation forestry project in Uganda. Despite these allegations, as recently as October 2022, BII announced the acquisition of Green Resources. It acquired the company alongside Norway and Finland’s development aid agencies and a private investment partner.

Abuses missed and unreported

Additionally, the Canary has also previously revealed that UK development aid financed at least 16 renewable energy land grabs in the Global South. BII has financed 11 of these projects through various funds and companies.

Of course, these examples of BII project-related human rights violations are non-exhaustive. What’s more, it’s also possible that much abuse goes unreported and missed.

The committee chair raised her concern that BII had failed to identify the issues at the projects in Kenya and the DRC. Moreover, she highlighted that instead, media and nonprofit organisations had uncovered these violations. Speaking to the UK’s development minister, she asked:

In both of those examples, from memory, it was charities or journalists that uncovered the failings that were going on, which led to the action being taken. Does it not concern you that it was not FCDO officials or BII that sent up the canary?

Mitchell replied that the DRC project was “always a fraught and difficult investment.”

In response, the chair concurred that:

Things go wrong. It is about having the safeguards in place to pick it up at an early enough stage, isn’t it?

Yet this missed the point. When “things go wrong”, individuals and communities experience attempted assassination, violent evictions, and the wholesale decimation of their livelihoods. Moreover, Mitchell had cursorily admitted that in the DRC case, the UK had been aware of the potential for risks. In spite of this, it didn’t stop the government channelling development aid to the project.

The Canary contacted the FCDO for comment but hadn’t received one at the time of publishing.

BII has not faltered in maintaining active investments in other projects with publicly available reports of human rights violations. This speaks to the nature of development aid itself. Its priority is and always will be to open up markets and opportunities for big business and private capital. Crucially, if it harms communities along the way, it’s only a problem when it gets found out. And sometimes still, not even then.

Feature image via Adityamadhav83/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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