The palm oil land grab

Cedric Gouverneur
Wednesday 23 December 2009 by LRAN

Climate change is only the meteorological manifestation of many misuses of the earth in pursuit of easy, or easier, lives. As the conference in Copenhagen tries to establish some global limits on pollution and exploitation, we report from those places where the damage has long been done, starting with Indonesia

In the rainforest at dawn the hunter-gatherers were grouped round us in a semi-circle. The men in loincloths looked at us, while the women standing behind them suckled their babies and reassured the children, alarmed by our arrival. Menti, 60 and powerfully built, who is head of a group of five families, spoke to the anthropologist with us. The Orang Rimba (people of the forest) were happy to answer our questions as long as we were quick, as it was almost time to go hunting. Animals are harder to find as their habitat disappears.

The forests on the island of Sumatra are shrinking as an oil palm monoculture supplants them. Palm oil, previously used in foodstuffs and cosmetics, is now used to produce the biofuel known as biodiesel. Between 1998 and 2007, Indonesia officially increased the land given to oil palm cultivation from three to seven million hectares, putting it ahead of Malaysia as the world’s biggest producer. To satisfy the explosion in demand for the oil, projected to rise from 22.5 million tonnes today to 40 million tonnes by 2020, Indonesia has gargantuan plans: 20 million hectares are to be devoted to palms by 2020, equivalent to an area a third of the size of France. In Sumatra, where the forests have been reduced to 400,000 hectares from 2.2 million in 1999, 850,000 hectares of oil palms will be added to the current 450,000.

As the animals they used to hunt disappear along with the forests, hunger has driven some Orang Rimba to destroy their own ecosystem for cash. "We’ve heard about a clan in the west that has sold some of the forest to the Javanese," Menti told me. "They plan to turn it into an oil palm plantation." This enrages the hunters and bewilders their visitors: how can Orang Rimba sell land in the middle of a national park, which they don’t own but are entitled to use, to farmers who have no right to buy it? This shows the hollowness of the Indonesian environment minister’s promises. In March 2007 in Jakarta he gave his word that "the forests would not be sacrificed for millions of hectares of oil palms".

Happiness grows on trees

A few kilometres from Menti’s clan, I met Kardeo, 54, on the patio of his enormous house, its stuccoed columns painted pink. "That’s where I used to live," he said, pointing to a wooden shack nearby. "The oil palms brought me happiness." Kardeo is a transmigrasi. Between 1950 and 2002, to relieve pressure on overpopulated Java (1), Indonesia encouraged more than six million poor Javanese to seek their fortunes on outlying islands. This policy has caused tension with the indigenous people, who at best see the internal migrants as privileged intruders, and at worst colonisers reinforcing Java’s historical domination of the rest of the country. In 2001 in Borneo, hundreds of Javanese, including women and children, were massacred by Dayak warriors, a reminder of their former reputation as head-hunters.

"I left Java at the end of 1984," Kardeo said. "The government gave me a wooden house, three hectares of land and financial support for a year." The early years before the oil palm were tough. "I grow 16 hectares of them today. Each hectare yields 1.6 tonnes a month, and a kilo of palm oil fruit sells for between 700 and 1,700 rupiah, depending on the market rate. So my plantation brings in 45 million rupiah a month [$4,770]. And I started from scratch."

Kardeo has a comfortable life and has even been able to send his sons to university. Oil palms need little attention; his 16-acre plantation employs just six people, so his labour costs are low. Growers freely admit that low labour costs were an incentive to convert from rubber trees (which take less of an environmental toll) to oil palms. "With fertilisers and pesticides from Monsanto, the return is even better," Kardeo said. I asked if he had heard about the damage that oil palms do to the environment. "My standard of living and the economy of my country depend on the oil palm. So, as for the environment..."

Kardeo may be doing well, but few poor Sumatran peasants share his enthusiasm. They’ve been impoverished by a crop which was supposed to make them richer. Their land has been taken and their rivers polluted. Throughout the Indonesian archipelago, hundreds of villages whose inhabitants feel let down are taking direct action against the palm oil companies and the authorities. The Walhi association has listed 224 conflicts in which village communities are resisting palm oil companies in Sumatra and around 500 throughout the country.

In theory, granting land to an investor is supposed to entail legal obligations, including carrying out an environmental impact study. But according to Serge Marti, director of the Swiss association LifeMosaic and the author of a report on oil palm monoculture (2), "a bribe of 50 million rupiah [$5,300] is enough to get a 20,000 hectare plantation authorised... companies turn up accompanied by the authorities and the police to intimidate the local people. I have seen villagers accused of ’communism’, like in the time of Suharto, if they refused to hand over their land to ’national development projects’, which oil palms supposedly are" (3). Property rights in Indonesia are ambiguous: from the time of the Dutch colonialists to now, the state has always reserved the power to overturn them in the name of development or public interest.

Until 1999, the 2,500 inhabitants of Karang Mendafo lived off their paddy fields and rubber trees. They look back on that as a lost age of self-sufficiency. The village chief Mohammed Rusdi said: "A company that’s part of the Sinar Mas group [an Indonesian conglomerate] came and chopped down the forest with the help of soldiers and the police. Sinar Mas seized 600 hectares and turned them into palm plantations. We lost our land. We lost our forest. Seven neighbouring villages met the same fate." Rusdi went to plead his village’s case at the Bali conference in December 2007 (4), but to no avail.

The villagers say that Sinar Mas made promises, offering compensation, jobs, new roads and schools. But they’re still waiting for the investment to start and their incomes have plummeted by up to 80%. Sayuti, 42, is married with three children. He said that "before 1999 I had one and a half hectares of rubber trees, and the rubber gave me an income of 1,200,000 rupiah a month [$130]". Today with just a small stake in the plantation, Sayuti only earns 225,000 rupiah [$24] a month. The villagers now have to buy the fruit and vegetables they used to grow. Their rivers are dying and fertilisers and pesticides are killing the fish. A mixed system of agriculture and jungle retains water in the soil; monoculture leads to run-off, bringing floods that wash away the surface of the roads. So the enraged villagers of Karang Mendafo have resorted to direct action: several times a week, dozens armed with goloks, the intimidating local machetes, raid the plantation and help themselves to palm fruits to sell at the market.

Fighting back

Further north I visited the village of Logu Mandesa, home to 2,000 families. In 2006 the Sinar Mas group got a concession from the government to turn the villagers’ land into plantations. "The authorities couldn’t care less that the land belongs to us," said Sugino, a village chief. "So the company took 500 hectares and we’re still waiting for the compensation we were promised."

The villagers decided to fight back. On 28 December 2007 hundreds of men attacked the company’s property, burning 11 bulldozers and a 4x4. The media reported the uprising, which had been filmed on mobile phones, and public opinion sided with the rebels. The police arrested 22 people, nine of whom were detained for an extended period. "The company thinks only of profit, not of the long term management of nature over several generations," Sugino said. "None of the political parties supported us. The Indonesian human rights commission has done nothing for us."

Around 3,500 Orang Rimba still live in what remains of the jungles of central Sumatra. In 1966 the Indonesian rainforest covered 77% of the country. Today, four-fifths of it has disappeared (5). In Sumatra as in Kalimantan (the southern part of Borneo) and in the Indonesian province of Papua, the speed of deforestation is estimated at 400 football fields per day, the highest in the world. According to the UN, by 2012 the Indonesian rain forest, which is supposedly protected, will be "severely degraded" (6). "We have nothing to lose," said a young man in Logu Mandesa. "More bulldozers are going to get burnt."

Translated by George Miller

Cédric Gouverneur is a journalist

© Le Monde diplomatique - all right reserved

(1) 127 million of Indonesia’s total population of 220 million live on Java, which accounts for just 10% of the country’s total area.

(2) Losing Ground, report by LifeMosiac (Switzerland), Sawit Watch (Indonesia) and Friends of the Earth (UK), February 2008.

(3) Between half a million and a million communists were killed in 1965-6 in Indonesia by Suharto’s New Order regime.

(4) This conference, which brought together representatives of 180 countries on 3-4 December 2007 under the aegis of the UN, was notable for its lack of commitments.

(5) «Les agrocarburants, ça nourrit pas son monde», a site run by (among others) CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), Oxfam and Friends of the Earth.

(6) The Last Stand of the Urangutan (PDF), published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), February 2007.

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