7 Oct 2021

Exclusive: Palm oil bosses human rights abuses claims

Chief Correspondent

Palm oil executives have been caught on camera apparently admitting to human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea (PNG), home to the world’s third largest rainforest, linking global brands to deforestation and child labour. 

Bosses from East New Britain (ENB) – a logging and palm oil firm which has had links to brands like Colgate-Palmolive, Nestle, Danone and Kellogg – were secretly recorded by Global Witness over two years claiming to use child labour and bribe officials. ENB denies it uses these practices.

All the companies contacted by Channel 4 News said they have severed ties with ENB.

Eddie Lamur, Founding Director of Tobar Investment, a close business partner of ENB, told undercover reporters how Tobar and ENB pay off the police to beat up locals who oppose deforestation. ENB and Tobar deny any involvement in police brutality.

‘School children’

Deforestation is set to be a key issue at the COP26 climate summit, to be held next month in Glasgow, as rainforests play a vital role in capturing carbon and providing a home to endangered species.

Palm oil is used in a wide range of supermarket products from pizza, biscuits, and chocolate to deodorant and cosmetics.

Rainforests around the world, including in PNG, are being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.

In secretly filmed footage, ENB’s land acquisition manager Bernard Lolot said the company used “school children” aged “10 to 15” to pick the palm oil fruits.

At the same dinner, Michael Paisparea, ENB’s public relations manager, said it costs roughly the equivalent of £20,500 or £10,300 to bribe ministers in PNG.

Mr Lolot added that officials can be bribed with a “special favour” such as paying “school fees”.

ENB has denied bribery and using child labour.

In a separate conversation, Mr Lamur of Tobar Investment, a close business partner of ENB, told the undercover Global Witness reporter his company and ENB have paid police officers to beat up villagers opposed to their plantations.

Describing an attack on protesting villagers, he said: “We went after them in the night, got them, belted them up and locked them up at the station. I was there at one or two operations.

“The police and our people went together in the night.”

He added that they would “belt” the people they had chosen to ensure the “word spread around” and then there would be “no more unnecessary disturbances” to their workers.

The company has denied the allegations.

Mr Lamur also claimed ENB’s chief executive Eng Kwee Tan helped with the attacks.

In another secretly filmed meeting, Mr Tan detailed an international tax evasion scheme employed by the firm.

He said the company exports palm oil to India from Papua, but false paperwork labels it from Malaysia to avoid tax.

Mr Tan emailed on behalf of ENB to deny absolutely any involvement in tax evasion.

He added: “Neither Mr Lolot nor Mr Paisparea serve in any capacity within the employment division of the Company and any information they might give concerning the employment of child labour is hearsay and false.”