03.07.24 Environment

‘Your reports stopped the deaths’: a year reporting on Del Monte

Twelve months on, violence around the Kenyan farm continues but locals say they can finally see signs of change

I first learned about the deaths and disappearances surrounding Del Monte’s pineapple plantation during a casual conversation with a friend. I was asked if I was willing to take up a story that had been known about for years but never fully investigated.

It concerned a string of shocking allegations, stretching back over a decade, against the company’s security guards. The farm has long been a target for local pineapple thieves whose raids have sparked violent clashes.

The first-person accounts were candid, scary and moving. When I visited the villages around the farm, about 40km northeast of Nairobi, it seemed that everyone I met knew someone with a family member who had allegedly been killed or injured. And those bearing scars were not just thieves, but innocent passersby too.

I wanted to get this story in front of an international audience. But I knew it would need to be a deep investigation. When the Bureau of Investigative Journalism decided to take it on, I began gathering evidence.

Among local communities, feelings about my reporting were mixed. Some were hopeful that the facts would finally be brought to light, others sceptical that it would go anywhere.

One warning stuck in my mind: “Be careful. You will either end up very rich, in exile or dead. We know very few people [to] stand against this company and sustain it.” It came from a former local leader who had been involved in previous efforts to confront Del Monte. They declined to be interviewed for the story.

There were times I felt like giving up. But I remembered the mothers I had spoken to who had lost sons on the farm. I visited at least two marked graves where young men had been buried. And I recalled hearing the hope in their parents’ voices that bringing the story to light may change the dynamic between Del Monte and the local communities. I kept going.

Gathering the evidence was no easy task. One attempt to witness the pineapple thefts firsthand ended up with my arrest. A truck completely blocked the road ahead of me and two police vehicles carrying several officers sandwiched my car between them as I was escorted to the police station, right outside Del Monte staff quarters.

We were questioned and released, but that wasn’t the end of it. Hours later, I realised I was still being followed and the police were asking about my whereabouts.

We suspended the on-the-ground investigation and developed a new reporting strategy. But we knew we had to publish soon.

Black-market pineapples being sold by the side of the road near the farm last year

Some weeks later, in June 2023, we published our first exposé with the Guardian.

Del Monte said it took the findings “extremely seriously” and had instituted a “full and urgent” investigation. It added: “The conduct alleged in these cases is in clear violation of Fresh Del Monte’s longstanding commitment to human rights and the comprehensive policies and procedures we have in place to ensure our operations respect the dignity of all individuals.”

In the wake of that story, some of Del Monte’s main UK customers, such as Tesco, Asda and Waitrose, stopped purchasing its Kenyan pineapple products. Morrisons did the same last month. Iceland, however, is still stocking the company’s products.

In the year that followed, we stayed on the story and made new discoveries, hearing eyewitness accounts of new incidents and speaking to human rights campaigners.

We reported on the incident at the farm in December that led to the deaths of four men whose bodies were pulled from a nearby river. Witnesses said they saw guards beating the men and throwing two of them into the water.

The company said there was “no foul play” in the deaths and that postmortems conducted by pathologists had concluded the same.

In March, Del Monte overhauled the security at the farm, firing more than 200 guards and bringing in the contractor G4S to take over the operation.

When I recently visited the villages to see what has changed, residents told me that they believe the publicity pushed through changes at Del Monte. Though violence has flared up again recently, one local resident told me the revelations “stopped the deaths”.

“We have not heard of a death in the past six months, which is unique,” said Mbuthia Njoroge, a shopkeeper in Makenji village. “The last deaths we heard of were in December and you guys have kept reporting about it … you should just continue.”

We will.

The violence has not stopped altogether. Mbuthia was speaking after a recent clash between pineapple thieves and newly contracted guards spilled into her village in May 2024.

The security guards were backed by the police, who fired gunshots and rubber bullets. At least six people were injured, including bystanders who were not involved in the attempted theft.

Ndung’u Kahungura, who was brought up in the area, believes that calling out the company for alleged human rights abuses has had an effect. While some previous allegations had made it to court, local pressure appeared to have made little overall difference.

“Nothing has ever proved consequential in trying to pile pressure on Del Monte,” he said. “I have been to protests and we were simply asking for an overhaul in the security guards or at least the approach they use in dealing with the suspected pineapple thieves.”

There are now some signs of change. This time of year, he said, the farms near the highway would be ripe with pineapples and he would normally expect to hear about a lot of deaths. There have been some clashes – but no one has died.

“We are not mourning all the time like we did last year.”

Header image: Brian Otieno for the Guardian/TBIJ

Reporter: Edwin Okoth
Environment editor: Robert Soutar
Deputy editors
: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Frankie Goodway
Fact checker: Somesh Jha

Our environment reporting is partly funded by the Montpelier Foundation, the Waterloo Foundation and the Hollick Family Foundation. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.