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Is palm oil fuelling the demise of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples?

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In order to accommodate a booming biofuel industry, widespread
deforestation and violations of indigenous rights in Indonesia are
occurring at an unprecedented rate. National economic growth is being
used as a platform for the destruction of millions of hectares of
rainforest, and is having disastrous effects on millions of indigenous
peoples who continue to depend on these forests for their livelihood.

As the 2007 UN Conference on Climate Change convenes in Bali to discuss global warming and deforestation among other issues, millions of hectares of forest are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations across Indonesia; plantations that are systematically destroying the country’s rainforests and jeopardising the very existence of millions of indigenous people who rely on them.

Palm oil is one of the main agricultural products used in the production of biofuels, which have been touted by many as a potential solution to global warming and a source of employment for the rural poor. Yet, oil palm plantations have come under increasing criticism due to excessive environmental and social costs: costs borne disproportionately by indigenous peoples.

In order to accommodate the burgeoning demand for palm oil, vast areas of rainforest are being destroyed to make room for plantations.

Indonesia reportedly loses an area of forest “equivalent to around 300 football fields every hour”. In addition to the 24 million hectares that have been cleared for oil palm, existing development plans have identified an additional 20 million hectares for future plantations, the vast majority of which are situated in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua – areas with predominantly indigenous populations.

In the province of West Kalimantan alone, the UN has identified five million indigenous people who are likely to be displaced due to the expansion of oil palm plantations.

These indigenous peoples depend on the forest for sustenance as they have for generations. The forest has had a significant role in indigenous societies, cultures, knowledge, and values. Yet as Indonesia’s forests disappear, the futures of millions of indigenous people are placed in jeopardy.

Indigenous peoples rarely have legal titles for their land. Instead they operate under a traditional system of communal ownership and customary land rights. Although the absence of legal titles makes indigenous landowners more vulnerable to exploitation, the Indonesian Constitution recognizes customary land ownership and indigenous land rights.

However, despite this inclusion in the Constitution, indigenous lands continue to be appropriated by force, fraudulent means, and inducements. These violations have been legitimised by a Presidential decree (Pepres 36/2005), under which the government may appropriate customary lands in the name of “public interest” and economic development.

Agri-business provides billions of dollars in revenue for the Indonesian government, through tax revenues and profits for state-owned corporations such as PT Perkenunan Nusantara (PTPN). There are widespread allegations of government officials profiting from oil palm development through kickbacks in the awarding of land concessions. As such, laws defending these interests supersede those that promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Although the law states that compensation is to be provided for appropriated lands, compensation is arbitrarily determined by the government without due process or consultation. Victims of State land grabs are drastically short-changed, and often receive no compensation at all.

Occasionally local indigenous people are offered employment as plantation labourers, but working conditions are notorious and pay is insufficient. It is far more common for oil palm corporations to import cheap labour, displacing local indigenous populations altogether.

In search of employment, most of the displaced relocate to urban centres. There they cannot find adequate housing or employment, and are forced to live in slums on the outskirts of the city. These slums are overcrowded, lack basic services, are subject to high crime rates, and are vulnerable to persecution by local authorities.

Those who choose to remain behind are also subjected to a multitude of human rights abuses. Violent conflicts occur between displaced persons and the authorities, plantation owners and workers with alarming frequency. Threats to personal security are often compounded by unemployment, landlessness and devastating environmental conditions such as contaminated water, food shortages and pollution.

Environmental and human rights advocacy has been somewhat effective in raising the issues, and the desperate situation facing Indonesia’s indigenous peoples has begun to receive international attention.

In a 2007 report on Indonesia, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern that large-scale oil palm plantations pose a threat to indigenous populations and their rights to own land and practice their cultures and traditions.

Yet thus far, the Indonesian government has done nothing to secure the interests and well being of affected indigenous peoples, whom are ultimately seen as an impediment to Indonesia’s economic development.

As more and more forest succumbs to industry, it becomes not only an issue of livelihood for these people, but an issue of their very survival.


Greenpeace Report – Biofuels: Cooking the Climate

Al Jazeera – Biofuels a Threat to Indigenous People

Associated Press – Biofuels Displace Indigenous People

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – 2007 Report on Indonesia

Promised Land: Palm Oil and Land Acquisition in Indonesia – Implications for Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples