Palm oil company efforts to slow deforestation not sustainable

Community member in palm oil plantation
By
FPP

Palm oil company efforts to slow deforestation not sustainable

Palm oil companies have long been criticised for their damaging clearance, of both forests and peatlands, which contributes significantly to global warming. It is estimated that Indonesia, where deforestation is still increasing despite Presidential promises to halt it, is the world’s third highest emitter of green house gases. This is mainly due to large scale land clearance for palm oil plantations, pulp and paper ventures and transmigration.  Considering the ineffectiveness of Government efforts, getting companies to set aside forest and peatland areas within their concessions seems like a sensible way to limit the problem. But, given that most concessions are handed out by governments without first recognising and securing the lands of local communities,what are the implications of these set-asides for the rights and livelihoods of forest peoples?A new report from the Forest Peoples Programme and Transformasi untuk Keadilan-Indonesia (TUK-I) explores how one of Indonesia’s largest palm oil companies, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), is piloting its new Forest Conservation Policy in its subsidiary PT Kartika Prima Cipta (PT KPC) in Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, an upland area famous for its large lakes, extensive peat swamps and productive inland fisheries. 

The findings are quite startling. Far from being a model project which reconciles community rights and forest conservation efforts with palm oil plantations, what we found was an ongoing land grab in clear violation of the standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), of which GAR is a prominent member. Moreover, recently imposed schemes to set aside areas for ‘high conservation values’ and ‘high carbon stocks’ are being imposed in ways that ignores the peoples’ own systems of land use, land ownership and land classification and thus limit their livelihoods and options for income generation. Affected Dayak communities are now experiencing a land shortage, while along the rivers affected Malay fisherfolk complain of river pollution, causing declining fishstocks and problems for fish-breeding ventures.

Although not all community members are against oil palm and some do see real benefits, the impositions have caused major rifts in almost all the communities. Ever since 2007, when the concession was first announced, there have been protests and demonstrations against these perceived injustices and these have continued right up to 2013. The company has paid the police to disperse protesters.

These shortcomings were reported to GAR in July 2013 but the company was very slow to take remedial action on the ground. Recently, however, the company has committed itself to improve things and is open to dialogue and taking advice, even from its critics.

The problems identified by FPP and TUK-I have wide relevance. GAR is applying this same approach in 8 plantations in Borneo and in its massive, highly controversial concession in Liberia, Golden Veroleum Limited. GAR’s sister company Asia Pulp and Paper is now applying the same policy to its 2.4 million hectare pulp and paper estates in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Recently the world’s largest palm oil developer, Wilmar, which trades some 22 million tonnes of palm oil every year, about 45% of the world trade, has also committed itself to the ‘high carbon stocks’ approach, though it is yet to roll this out in practice. Many of the other major traders, retailers and investors in the palm oil sector seem poised to follow suit.

FPP is calling on them to refine their approach. Forest conservation efforts can’t work if forest set-asides are grafted onto ‘land grabs’. Instead, the companies must start by respecting communities’ land rights, securing their livelihoods and making clear from the start which areas they seek to take over for both plantations and conservation. As Anton Widjaya, Director of WALHI-West Kalimantan, the local chapter of Friends of the Earth, puts it:

These kinds of projects are only going to work once local and national governments first recognise peoples’ rights and companies understand that they are there as guests of the local communities rather than as feudal landlords. This is what it means when we say that all such operations require communities’ free, prior and informed consent.

We can’t talk about ‘sustainable palm oil’, if the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are undermined and their livelihoods made unsustainable in the process. Instead forest conservation efforts must build on community rights, accommodate their livelihoods and work with the communities’ representatives. As the leader of one Dayak community put it:

They came here and ... said they wanted to help us guard our forest. They also promised [oil palm] smallholdings to us if we would surrender our forests. We replied that these areas will be preserved by us but we don’t want to release our lands, we want to protect the forest ourselves. It is strange from our point of view. We have conserved these areas ourselves and now they want to take them.... 

An older woman from another village put things more starkly:

It’s already enough! We don’t want more land taken for oil palm let alone for this ‘carbon’!

Marcus Colchester, Senior Policy Advisor, FPP