This spring, when Pulchérie Amboula went to plant crops on her land, she was chased away by men in trucks.
“As soon as they see the tractor, there is a Hilux vehicle which starts following behind,” she says. “We no longer work. With grandchildren and children, how are we going to live?”
Pulchérie inherited the land on the Batéké Plateau, undulating savannah in the Republic of Congo and farms cassava to sell in the capital, Brazzaville, 90 kilometres away. But in November 2021, white security guards arrived and began driving farmers from their fields, she and her neighbours say.
The guards are employed by a local partner of TotalEnergies, a French oil giant. With Forest Neutral Congo (FNC), Total is planting 40,000 hectares with acacia trees which it says will capture 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years. This represents around 2 per cent of Total’s annual emissions.
Each year the project will generate $4 million of offsets carbon credits which the firm will use to offset its fossil fuel emissions. Farmers like Amboula say the project, whose offsets will, according to Total, be verified by the biggest issuer of carbon credits, Verra, threatens their survival.
“The kids will no longer study. We no longer have fields, how will we pay for their schooling?” she says. “If you fall sick today, where will you get the money to get treatment? I feel like these people came to kill us on our own land.”
During two recent visits to the area, at least six farmers told SourceMaterial that they had been prevented from planting or tending their crops.
Officially, the Congolese government consulted local people before requisitioning the land for use by Total. But an investigation by SourceMaterial and Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism wing, found that a law transferring the land to the “private domain of the state” was passed more than a year before consultations ended.
“I feel like these people came to kill us on our own land.
Some community representatives received a nominal payment of around $1 a hectare, authorised by the government, where previously they had rented out the land for $16 a hectare. Other farmers told SourceMaterial that they were not consulted before their land was taken and received little compensation. Some received nothing at all.
In a joint response to questions, Total and the owners of FNC said: “An assessment is underway to finalise the mapping of stakeholders and to propose and implement the measures that will allow them to be co-beneficiaries of the project.”
The assessment would “identify a remediation action plan, including livelihood restoration measures that comply with international standards,” a spokesman wrote, adding that it was the companies’ ambition “to implement international standards that will exceed local legal requirements”.
In late 2021, Congo’s forestry minister, Rosalie Matondo, visited Pulchérie’s village of Ngo. A government video shows locals greeting her as she descends from a helicopter. Later, men and women are seen writing on a piece of paper as an official points out where to sign.
“Be proud to tell yourselves today that you are engaged in the fight against climate change,” Matondo says into a microphone.
A caption on the video says that the ceremony involved a “symbolic” payment to villagers as part of the Total project. The document they signed says the payment, also described here as “symbolic”, was made “with a view to clearing their rights of use” to the land.
Around 70,000 hectares set aside for the project, an area the size of Singapore. Nine families with land within the area received a nominal payment. Some said that they were offered no choice about giving up their plots.
“All the elders and other land chiefs refused, saying they weren’t selling the land, and that they would not take the money,” says a farmer, Olivier Claver, “We never sold our land, even our ancestors did not do it.”
But their objections appear to have fallen on deaf ears and the land was taken anyway.
Others complained that the payment was inadequate, while at least one family whose plot was marked out on the official map as being part of the project area was not consulted and received nothing.
Maixent Jourdain Adzabi, the land chief for the Nkonon family, told SourceMaterial that he and his relatives were “never included” in the consultation process and that they now have no work.
“Today populations are crying, and bitterly. And us, our children? We raise them based on our fields. We work, we find money to get them into school,” he said. “Our future children will be born and eat what? And their wives and children, how will they live?”
In a joint statement, Total and Forest Resource Management (the French parent company to FNC) told SourceMaterial that the land “was not requisitioned, as it had belonged and still belongs to the state.”
The government of Congo did not respond to questions.
Congo’s land laws are complicated. When the country gained independence from France in 1960, all land was handed to the state, which later allowed people to buy plots on which to farm and build.
“When the land was passed to the state, the state had difficulties because there were families whose ancestors had occupied these spaces,” says Lilian Bardros, a legal expert in Brazzaville. “There was a lot of conflict between the state and these families.”
In 2018, a new law allowed people with customary rights to ancestral land to register for deeds. But registration fees between 300,000 and 1 million Congolese francs ($480 – $1600) coupled with the expense of travelling to Brazzavile make the cost prohibitive, says another expert, Laurin Lilian Barros.
“People in the villages do not have the information, they haven’t been informed, they do not have the means to go and register the land,” he says.
In practice, plots are handed down through families in a process overseen by local chiefs. If the government wants to take their land, they have little power to fight back.
SourceMaterial obtained a copy of the lease agreement between FNC and the government. In it, the state promises to evict “all the so-called landowners, holders of traditional and customary rights who claim the land.”
FNC pays $128,000 which includes a $27,000 contribution to a fund for local development. A Total spokesman confirmed that the oil company is “subleasing the area from FNC, and FNC from the State of Congo”. He declined to say how much Total is paying for the land, citing “contractual confidentiality”.
Total and FNC said that the project will ultimately create jobs in the area and “provide for the strong involvement of women and indigenous populations in operations”, as well as supplying nearby cities with timber.
The development fund would be “dedicated to the local communities, financing social projects in nutrition, health, and education,” the companies said.
‘It doesn’t work’
Even in the best case, there are doubts about whether projects like this one really work, says Jutta Kill, a biologist and carbon offsetting expert.
“Tree planting projects are generally taking place on land used by indigenous or peasant farmers,” she said, adding that offsetting schemes are routinely designed to maximise the volume of credits they generate based on projections that are hard to verify.
“There is no credible carbon offset project,” she said. “They all claim to compensate for real emissions that are measurable and verifiable based on a story of what might happen.”
A spokesman for Verra said that there was no guarantee that it would verify Total’s credits from Batéké.
“Credits can’t be issued until the project has gone through extensive expert review and public consultation backed by dozens or even hundreds of random interviews with local communities,” he said. “Anyone who tried to steamroller smallholders would fail to both get results.”
Today, billboards emblazoned with Total’s logo line mud roads leading to the neat rows of acacia seedlings that now stretch across at least 850 hectares, interspersed with portacabins to house the workers who water them.
“Total did not respect the human rights of the population in the project they brought here,” Brice Makosso of the Justice and Peace Commission, a campaign group linked to the Catholic church. “They cannot hide behind the weakness of Congolese law.”
Clarisse Parfaite Louba, a farmer who grows potatoes on land inherited from her grandparents, land chiefs in the area, says her fields have simply been “snatched”.
“I beg the authorities to properly reflect over this situation, as well as the white man who brought this enterprise here,” she says. “Let him reflect and give us back our space.”