• Image 1 of 30

Inside the Company, Down on the Farm

keith harmon snow | Equateur (DRC), Massachsuetts (USA), DRC/USA

A stand of oil palm trees comprising a monoculture plantation and its lucrative commodity -- palm oil -- produced from the fruits of the tree. The bundles of palm nuts grow high up, are bulky and heavy, and the nuts are sharp on one end, leading to very difficult harvesting conditions and many debilitating injuries amongst workers.

INSIDE THE COMPANY, DOWN ON THE FARM offers a glimpse of work from a long term documentary project focused on the freedoms and unfreedoms of people engaged in agriculture. This exhibit showcases labor and social conditions on plantations in the Congo River basin (DR Congo) and on a farm in the Connecticut River valley (USA). The Congo selections portray diverse aspects of life on rural plantations in a war torn country; the primary commodity produced by these plantations is palm oil, with lesser productions of cocoa and rubber. The Congo photos show dilapidated factory and plantation infrastructure from the Belgian colonial era (1885-1960), laborers at work and "leisure", and conditions of daily life. The western Massachusetts selection, in contrast, shows labor typical of the tobbacco and produce farms of the Connecticut River valley, where most jobs are occupied by migrants from central America and the Carribean, and the laborers come and go from work to homes daily.

This exhibit seeks to explore the unfreedoms, immobility and bondage of people born in plantation territories in teh Democratic Republic of the Congo and of migrant laborers working on farms in the United States. 

My first journey to the Congo -- then Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko -- was in 1991, when I crossed the borders from Kenya to Uganda and into eastern Zaire as a tourist on a mountain bike. In 2004 I returned, arriving by plane in the western capital city of Kinshasa, and seeking to document the ravages of the Congo during war time.  Repeated journeys to and from Central Africa over the next seven years took me into the most rural and isolated plantations situated along the Congo River and its main tributaries the Ikelemba, Lopori, and Lomami rivers.

Palm oil is produced from palm nuts, harvested in large bundles from palm trees, transported to a central location and processed in a factory.  Cocoa is produced from cocoa plants, but is a secondary and peripheral crop on the plantations shown here.  During the heaviest war years, 1996-2005, the "product" was shipped out of the territory by any means necessary: owners paid the military forces of all sides to facilitate business prerogatives, and ship and air vessels often returned carrying arms for the exchange. The cocoa makes its way into luxury Belgian chocolate and some chocolates often "cerified" as "Fair Trade".

The social conditions on the plantations in Congo are amongst the worst anywhere on earth, and the majority of the people in these areas have no opprtuinity of escaping the poverty, hunger, and lack of employment.  Born into bondage on land that was taken from them, the people nonetheless show profound courage, industriousness, and love for life. These communities are generally absent any and all health care, education and transportation (except for river travel by barge or duggout), and hunger and malnutrition prevail, bringing with them all their attendent ills. The owners pay the "overseers" to maintain a system of forced labor, maximizing profits that are expatriated from the Congo; the mid- and low-level managers are themselves subject to harrassment and dismissal if they show any kind of compassion or humanity to the laborers or their families.

Many of the general laborers working the agricultural and tobacoo farms in the Connecticut River Valley have migrated from Latin America or the Carribean and have found jobs for which they come and go daily.  Illegal labor camps formerly established by some of the more unethical farm owners have been shutdown in past years after the state received complaints of labor exploitation, including long working hours, low wages, and no benefits or health care or other "perks". Laborers are able to earn a living wage in most cases, and return to modest homes shared with their families.

keith harmon snow

keith.harmon.snow@gmail.com

+1 (413) 626-3800

 

Content loading...

Make Comment/View Comments