Indigenous leader tells about aching nine year palm oil conflict
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.
Read more about this subject
The production of palm oil is causing social and environmental problems worldwide. Both ENDS is working to make the sector fairer and more sustainable and is promoting alternatives for palm oil.
Video / 30 June 2017
Farmer in Kiungkang, West-Kalimantan, talks about the effects of the palm oil plantation around his village on food production and the health of the population.
Video / 18 November 2013
Between 2010 and 2013, Both ENDS, together with Indonesian and Dutch organisations and universities, conducted a project in the district of Sanggau in West-Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, Indonesia. The project was meant to help local communities with the recognition of their land rights and. This is a beautiful short documentary about how the people of one of these villages responded to the ever expanding palm oil plantations around them.
News / 23 November 2018
The production of palm oil is often accompanied by deforestation, environmental destruction and land grabbing. Local communities and activists who stand up against these problems are often threatened. Now the RSPO has taken significant steps in recent months to tackle these issues.
News / 30 June 2017
In 2005, a palm oil company approached the villagers of Kiungkang in West-Kalimantan, Indonesia, with offers to convert their farms to oil palm smallholdings. Many farmers agreed to the proposal because of the high monthly incomes promised by the company that they could earn from the oil palms. Unfortunately, the palm oil dream turned out to be an illusion.
News / 8 December 2015
Both ENDS has, as a member of the RSPO, participated in a dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Netherlands is the largest importer of palm oil in Europe and wants to promote sustainable trade and production chains.
News / 24 October 2017
On 30 September 2017 Both ENDS submitted a position statement on the draft Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil National Action Plan. The draft National Action Plan purports to represent a blue print for improving the sustainability of the Indonesian palm oil industry. However, Both ENDS has significant concerns about the logic, rationale and purpose behind the draft National Action Plan and its legitimacy as a benchmark for a sustainable palm oil industry.
Together with civil society organisations from all over the world, the Fair Green and Global (FGG) Alliance aims for socially just, inclusive and environmentally sustainable societies in the Netherlands and the Global South.
News / 14 June 2019
Last Thursday June 13, Rahmawati Retno Winarni of TUK, an Indonesian partner organisation of Both ENDS, presented a symbolic tree and an appeal to the Dutch Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten, also on behalf of 10 NGOs. The joint NGOs are pushing the EU, including the Dutch government, for strict EU legislation to prevent the destruction of forests and ecosystems and to protect human rights.
News / 28 June 2018
Last week, indigenous leaders from various countries were in Paris to urge action on deforestation and human rights abuses at the multi-stakeholder meeting of the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership. The group, invited by Forests Peoples Programme and Both ENDS, presented a publication 'Supply chain solutions for people and forests' containing a set of practical recommendations from local communities on how to make supply chains more sustainable and fair.
News / 12 December 2017
We are outraged and saddened to hear that Hernán Bedoya, a brave Colombian community leader and human rights defender, has been brutally murdered. After numerous threats to his life and despite all the best efforts of local groups to provide him with protection (such as bullet proof vests, cell phone etc.) he was shot dead by paramilitaries last Friday the 8th of December, while riding home on his horse.
News / 5 September 2016
By 2020, the EU wants a larger percentage of fuel used for transportation to consist of renewable sources, such as biofuel. Many European countries have therefore made the blending of biofuels in diesel and gasoline mandatory. A large proportion of this biofuel is now palm oil.
News / 15 May 2018
Both ENDS and Forest Peoples Program have formally requested the European Parliament, Commission and Council and the EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, to consult indigenous and local communities impacted by EU trade in palm oil and other agricultural commodities in formal EU policy deliberations on these topics. Why did we decide to do so and what's it all about? Our colleague Michael Rice sheds some light on the matter.
Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) is a rights-based approach ensuring inclusive and gender-responsive land governance, especially for those whose rights to land are not fully acknowledged.
Blog / 18 January 2019
Unambitious and uninspiring: the European Commission’s proposal for stepping-up action on global deforestationBy Michael Rice
After five years of equivocation the European Commission has proposed a ‘roadmap’ for stepping-up EU action to address its contribution to global deforestation. Despite the escalating impact of EU trade in forest-risk commodities, regardless of repeated calls from the European Parliament for regulatory measures and contrary to the conclusions of the Commission’s own feasibility study in support of legislative intervention, the Commission has ruled-out out any new initiatives, let alone any legislative measures. The Commission’s solution to this complex problem: policy coherence.
News / 22 April 2013
Between 2010 and 2013, Both ENDS, within an alliance of Indonesian and Dutch organisations and universities, conducted a pilot project to improve the spatial planning in the district of Sanggau in West-Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, Indonesia, to help local communities with the recognition of their land rights. We can show you a beautiful documentary about one of the villages in this district, Terusan.
Publication / 18 November 2013
Publication / 28 February 2018
Blog / 18 December 2017
We pushed the canoe through the turf and climbing on board he suggested I take the helm while he would hoist the sail. Being aboard this fast sailing lightweight canoe, carried by the swell of the blue sea, brought back images so vividly described in Hemingway's book The old man and the sea. After leaving the coast, going further onto the sea we eventually changed track and went north. I learned from the fisherman that the daily catch of fish was very meagre. Fishermen had to leave home early morning, around 4 AM, and had to venture out far off the coast to find fish. When I spotted my hotel near the beach we set course for the coast. When we had reached the shore again, I paid the fisherman and we parted amicably, in good spirit.
Publication / 27 June 2018