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German Development Minister Niebel defends letter to FIAN on Ugandan coffee

Development Minister Dirk Niebel has rejected claims that he put German business interests above human rights when he wrote to an NGO asking them not to criticize a Hamburg-based company operating in Uganda.

Two summer letters made public this week have put German Development Minister Dirk Niebel in hot water over the coffee industry. In the first, Niebel writes to food-focused non-governmental organization FIAN asking them to stop what he called a "campaign" against the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe coffee company.

In the second, FIAN said it took note of his request "with astonishment and concern," before outling their counter-argument.

FIAN argue that the coffee giant based in Hamburg should pay restitutions to thousands of farmers who say they were forcibly cleared from their land by the Ugandan military to make space for the coffee plantation. The group has often criticized the company in public over the issue but Niebel asked them to reconsider this.

Niebel, who twice mentioned that his ministry helps fund FIAN during an interview on German public radio station Deutschlandfunk, said the group was focusing on the wrong party in the dispute.

"There is no reason to believe that this investment [by the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe through its Kaweri Coffee subsidiary] was not made in good faith," Niebel said of the deal made with the Ugandan authorities. "That's why you have to be careful who you criticize. There were certainly some unfortunate situations in the build-up to this project. But when you work with a government who issues assurances - also in writing - then you can't really start with genealogical research, digging deep into Uganda's history, to find out what really happened on a plot of land."

Niebel pointed to a boycott of Ugandan coffee by some retailers in Germany, saying moves like this had the potential to negatively impact even more Ugandans than those displaced by the Kaweri plantation. Coffee accounts for more than half of the export revenue generated by Uganda. The Neumann Kaffee Gruppe has about a 10-percent share in the global coffee market.

"The Kaweri plantation is the largest German investment in Uganda and has the attention and the goodwill of the German government," Niebel had written to FIAN on June 25. This had prompted FIAN to say that Niebel's request appeared to be an attempt "to one-sidedly push through [German] business interests." In his Deutschlandfunk interview, Niebel instead warned of "pitting human rights and economic development against one another."

'No comment on ongoing case'

Niebel declined to comment in detail on the situation in Uganda, saying the German government would not comment on an ongoing court case in another country.

The "Wake Up and Fight for Your Rights, Madudu Group" - representing some of those affected - already won a civil lawsuit against the Kaweri subsidiary, but the company has appealed that verdict. FIAN mentioned this when replying to Niebel's letter saying it was "baffling" that he had made no mention of the existing court ruling. Neumann Kaffee Gruppe argues that, as it only bought the land on the understanding that nobody else laid claim to it, any fault would lie with the Ugandan authorities from before the signing of its lease for the plantation.

One former German negotiator on the long-running case, the Green party's Thilo Hoppe, was quoted by German daily Tagesspiegel as saying he felt "that the greatest resistance came from the side of the Ugandan government."

Niebel is a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats. This party is sometimes criticized for its libertarian, pro-business stance and is currently struggling in opinion polls ahead of Germany's general election on September 22. The FDP had previously campaigned for the abolition of the development ministry, saying its work could be folded into the foreign ministry.

msh/kms (dpa, KNA, epd)