As land disputes over palm oil plantations in West Sumatra flare up, community leaders and human rights defenders are being subjected to increasing intimidation and criminalization by local police allegedly spurred on by planters.
The expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations in West Sumatra started 35 years ago, with companies acquiring community lands facilitated by District Governments. The indigenous Minangkabau peoples believed that they were releasing lands for a limited period, equivalent to leases, and only learned later that the process in fact extinguished all customary rights to their lands. Where communities resist the takeover of their lands, district governments are being assisted by the police or the military to make sure that lands were surrendered. Where conflicts continue, companies are using the courts to criminalise community leaders.
Wilmar International is a leading oil palm plantation and production company and its operations in West Sumatra are full of conflicts with indigenous peoples. Five years ago, facing pressure from its customers demanding sustainability, Wilmar International announced its commitment to a policy of zero exploitation in palm oil production activities, as part of its NDPE commitment not to deforest, convert peat or exploit people. The zero exploitation policy also applies to its supply chains, which is important as Wilmar is the world's largest trader in palm oil, controlling more than 40 per cent of the world's internationally traded palm oil. Experience from West Sumatra, however, shows that its no exploitation policy has not been implemented, and its plantations and those of its suppliers are full of human rights abuses and conflicts. The construction of these oil palm plantations cleared forests, peatlands and mangrove forests but no restoration has taken place.
Mr. Syahrul Ramadhan Tanjung Sinaro (leader of the Nagari Simpang Tigo Koto Baru indigenous people), explained that his community's lands were taken over and cultivated by PT. Primatama Mulia Jaya (PT. PMJ - owned by Wilmar International) for oil palm plantations in 1997 even though no one from his community agreed to surrender their lands. In 2017, on learning about Wilmar's zero exploitation commitment and its responsibilities as an RSPO member, Mr Sinaro and other leaders of his community made requests that their lands be returned. In a response all too familiar to communities affected by Wilmar operations, Mr Sinaro, a former member of the West Sumatra Provincial Parliament. was arrested on charges of oil palm theft and was detained from 1st December 2017 to 15th March 2018. Mr Sinaro's his case is currently under legal review by the Indonesian Republic Supreme Court. PT. PMJ had also taken over lands of the neighbouring Nagari Kinali community with promises of establishing oil palm areas for the community. When these were never provided and community leaders complained, they were arrested and detained.
Nagari Kapa, another indigenous community in West Sumatra has suffered a similar fate. Its leaders have struggled to get their land rights respected by Wilmar subsidiary, PT. Permata Hijau Pasaman 1 (PT. PHP1), which had taken over their lands in the 1990s. In 2014, after learning about the RSPO, the Kapa leadership filed a formal complaint with the RSPO, stating that their lands had been taken over by the Wilmar subsidiary without their consent. Immediately, the intimidation and criminalisation of the community leaders escalated with frequent police interrogations and their highest leader, Mr. Alman Gampo Alam being arrested detained for three months. Mr Alman along with several other Kapa community leaders were eventually sentenced to between 3 months and one year in jail on charges of misuse of community funds, which were based on allegations from Kapa community members who were also employees of PT. PHP1. Mr Alman recently lost his appeal against the conviction despite the fact that all the allegations were withdrawn before the court case took place. He is currently serving the remainder of his six-month sentence in prison.
In total, about 24 communities in West Sumatra lost control of their customary lands to Wilmar subsidiaries, and did not give their free, prior and informed consent to company plantation operations on their lands.
On behalf of the affected Minangkabau peoples, the Nagari Institute is making the following demands:
- We ask Wilmar International to order their subsidiaries in West Sumatra to stop all intimidation and criminalization of communities affected by their operations.
- We demand that RSPO independently investigates the intimidation and criminalization of communities that are victims Wilmar's operations, and if found to be correct, to impose heavy sanctions on Wilmar International for non-compliance with the RSPO standard.
- We further ask the RSPO to provide full protection to indigenous peoples who are victims of palm oil production by Wilmar International and strengthen the complaints system in the RSPO to examine and sanction RSPO members who intimidate and criminalize community members, human rights defenders and whistleblowers.
- We ask that investors and buyers of palm oil do not buy from or make investment commitments with Wilmar International before the practices of customary land seizure are stopped and all existing conflicts are peacefully resolved.
Press Release was written by:
Indigenous Peoples Lawyer
The Nagari Institute - Indigenous Peoples Study & Advocacy Center
Mobile / WA: +62 822 6844 5710
The Nagari Institute is an indigenous peoples’ organisation dedicated to supporting the rights of Minangkabau peoples. It provides legal and technical support to communities and workers suffering abuse of their human rights, land rights and labour rights.
 NDPE stands for ‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation’.