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Blog / 29 January 2018

Indigenous leader tells about aching nine year palm oil conflict

By Michael Rice

Pak Japin is a quiet, slim, and softly-spoken man from the village of Silat Hulu, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. I met him at a recent documentary screening in Bali on the fringe of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual conference, where he spoke about his community's nine year-long conflict with palm oil company Golden Agri Resources Ltd (GAR).

Documentary shines light on the darkest palm oil conflicts

The documentary "Menata Asa Di Jalan Terjal Kebun Kelapa Sawit" (Lit the Candle in the Darkest Palm Oil Conflict) produced by INFIS beautifully depicts the stories of two distant communities as they struggle to resolve long-standing grievances with encroaching palm oil companies: Pak Japin's community of Silat Hulu and the community of Sima Village in West Papua. The stories of these two communities follow similar paths and reflect the hundreds of unresolved conflicts across Indonesia between communities and palm oil companies.

Pak Japin was chosen by his community to represent their story to the outside world. After the film screening, organised by Both ENDS' partner organization Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), Pak Japin was asked about the impacts on his community. As he told his story it became clear why the people of Silat Hulu chose this man to be their voice in Bali. He sat erect with a tense energy that vibrated from his index finger and he spoke with such passion and intensity that he had no need for the microphone that he clutched tightly in his left. The anger and conviction in his voice left no-one in doubt that the conflict in Silat Hulu continues unresolved, and that the hurt suffered by his community is far from over.

He told the audience about the escalating impacts on his community, and his voice trembled with the frustration of nine years of being ignored, with the indignation of being challenged to prove his community's claim to the lands they had occupied for generations, and with the fury of watching the company that had taken those lands profiting from the oil palms it had planted there. He spoke about forest clearing and dispossession that happened in 2008 as though it happened yesterday. He spoke about his community's many pleas for help to politicians, regulators and GAR falling on deaf ears for years.

The English translator struggled to keep pace with his words and I was spellbound by the passion and energy that this short man exuded. I can't recall everything he said, but his message was clear: 'We were here first, and we will never give up'.

Community stories emblematic of bigger picture of environmental and human rights violations

The stories of Silat Hulu and Sima Village are unique, yet they are also emblematic of many communities' experiences with palm oil in Indonesia. An experience typified by a lack of notice, lack of information, lack of consultation, lack of consent, land-grabbing, illegal forest clearing, unfulfilled promises of wealth and prosperity, depleted and polluted watersheds, contaminated rice paddies, polluted rivers, and division and conflict between families and within communities.

Pak Japin and the Silat Hulu community claim that the plantation has stolen 1,406 hectares of their communal land: a drop in the ocean for a company the size of Golden Agri Resources, but of crucial importance to the community. The Silat Hulu community, with the support of Institut Dayakologi, ELSAM and others, has been attempting to negotiate a private resolution with GAR for several years and finally seemed to make headway two years ago when a 'mutual verification process' for the disputed area was proposed. Agreement on how that process will be implemented now seems within reach.

However, there is deep concern about how a small community like Silat Hulu can obtain a fair and lasting outcome through private negotiation with a company of relatively infinite resources and expertise. The remarks of a GAR representative after the film screening - challenging the film's message, belittling the impacts Pak Japin described, and blaming the community for failing to prove their title to the disputed lands - was a worrying sign that the company staff involved in addressing the community's grievances do not fully understand them. The sad irony that a GAR representative came and speak against an indigenous leader in an intimidating manner at the screening of a film documenting testimonies of company intimidation seemed lost on the company man.

Few options available to resolve grievances and deliver redress for communities

For an outsider to the dispute, this power dynamic is concerning. Yet Pak Japin and the civil society groups that support him remain optimistic about achieving a negotiated solution. The Silat Hulu community has already sought justice in the courts, a slow and costly process without any clear results, so the decision to negotiate a settlement is understandable.

GAR is a member of the RSPO, so the Silat Hulu community could also raise its dispute under the RSPO's grievance mechanism. It is obvious why GAR would want to avoid a formal, public complaint, but GAR's avoidance of scrutiny to the RSPO standard will undermine the credibility of the RSPO system. For the Silat Hulu community, the RSPO's grievance mechanism may be too slow and may not offer a guaranteed solution. There may be few incentives for the community to start a new process if a negotiated outcome now seems within reach, though it is important that alternative dispute resolution processes remain open.

For Pak Japin, his community and the CSOs that support them, I hope a solution can be found and that GAR is willing to engage with the community's grievances in good faith and work towards a fair, just and durable solution. In the meantime, Both ENDS will work towards ensuring the RSPO's grievance mechanism can provide the kind of support and redress that communities so desperately need. I want to see the traditional rights of indigenous communities like Pak Japin's respected and protected in accordance with recognised principles of international law, as also embraced by RSPO, and I will keep working with our partners in Indonesia on ways to bridge the accountability gap for communities living on the palm oil frontier.

The documentary can be found on YouTube. It is well worth watching.

Postscript: Since the publication of the blog post above, GAR and Both ENDS have spoken about the events and discussion that took place at the public film screening in Bali described in the blog post above. It was agreed to consider the Silat Hulu case further and explore, together with the local parties most immediately concerned – i.e. the Silat Hulu community, Institute Dayakologi, ELSAM and others, whether there are in fact unsettled issues between the community and the company, and if so what they are and possible avenues for resolving these issues legitimately, comprehensively and fairly.

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