Indigenous Peoples Left “Devastated” by Oil Palm Plantations

A recently published Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has highlighted how thousands of Indigenous people and other rural communities have had their lives ‘devastated’ by oil palm plantations in Indonesia – the world’s largest palm oil exporter. Indonesia is home to about 50 to 70 million Indigenous people, and over 2,300 Indigenous communities – about a quarter of the country’s population. Indonesia has about 14 million hectares of land planted with oil palm. Commercial production began with Dutch colonial plantations on the island of Sumatra – which continues to account for 80% of total Indonesian production.

As the HRW report describes, a complex web of domestic and international companies is involved in growing palm fruit, converting palm fruit into oil, manufacturing ingredients, and finally utilizing these ingredients to produce consumer products sold around the world. Palm oil derivatives can be found in many household products such as chocolate and hazelnut spreads, cookies, and margarine. Palm oil derivatives can also be found in some lotions and creams, makeup, soaps, candles, and detergents. Palm oil is also used to make biofuel.

The report is based on interviews with over 100 people, including several dozen members of Indigenous communities, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations. The report documents how the establishment and expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia have adversely affected Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihood, food, water, and culture.   The report is based on research conducted between February and September 2018, and focuses on oil palm plantation disputes involving Indigenous peoples’ claims to customary lands and forests in Pareh and Semunying Bongkang hamlets of Semunying Jaya village in the Jagoi Babang district of Bengkayang regency in West Kalimantan province, and Orang Rimba groups in the Sarolangun regency of Jambi province in central Sumatra.

The report focuses on the plantation operations of two companies – PT Ledo Lestari in Bengkayang regency of West Kalimantan province, and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 in Sarolangun regency of Jambi province. According to the report, both of these oil palm plantations have had a devastating impact on the rights of two groups of Indigenous peoples: the Ibans, a subgroup of the Dayak peoples indigenous to Borneo (Kalimantan) and the Orang Rimbas, a semi-nomadic, forest-dependent Indigenous people in central Sumatra. Alongside this devastation, the report also highlights that there was a failure to create any mechanism for restitution, or provide just and fair compensation for losses suffered, in consultation with the Indigenous people affected. A crucial issue is the struggle of various Indigenous groups for legal recognition of their identity and collective rights.

Moreover, residents interviewed for the report have noticed that, over time, the nearby Kumba and Semunying Rivers, which they rely on for drinking, fishing, and household chores, have become increasingly polluted. Residents attribute this pollution to increased soil erosion, the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and effluents from the oil palm plantation that seep into the ground and rivers.

Today, in Jambi province in central Sumatra, the Orang Rimba community lives in poverty. Many have been left homeless and live in plastic tents. The Orang Rimba that HRW interviewed said that they had once been self-sufficient, but were now reduced to begging on the highway, or ‘stealing’ oil palm fruits from the plantation area to sell and make money. The plantation employs only a few of the several hundred Orang Rimba adults estimated to live in the area.

Oil palm expansion is often held responsible for deforestation, loss of biodiversity, conflicts over land rights between local communities and oil palm companies, peatland forest fires and related respiratory diseases, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Oil palm expansion therefore also has global repercussions, contributing to anthropogenic global warming.