Indonesia’s Land Wars: Struggles and Intrigues Behind the Palm Oil Industry

In Indonesia, land disputes often revolve around oil palm plantations.

The exact number of land disputes is unclear, but many communities lose access to forests and customary lands. Agricultural lands of local communities also often become victims. In 2017, an NGO in Indonesia reported more than 650 land disputes affecting over 650,000 families.

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It is estimated that two land-related disputes occur every year (HRW, 2019). In 2008, there were 513 active disputes related to oil palm in Indonesia, with 166 of them occurring in Kalimantan. In 2012, 439 disputes involving oil palm companies and communities were recorded in Kalimantan (ECC, 2020, p. 3).

Conflicts arise from disputes over land boundaries

Generally, disputes over oil palm land arise due to evictions and deforestation. Various cases of torture, abduction, and murder, among other human rights violations committed by mercenaries hired by oil palm companies, have been documented in oil palm disputes (ECC, 2020, p. 3).

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Conflicts arise from disputes over land boundaries, lack of consultation and socialization, illegal actions by companies, inadequate compensation, and broken promises to affected communities (Rachel Diaz-Bastin, 2016).

Local disputes over oil palm land often lead to resistance from the local community. In some cases, community resistance has resulted in casualties.

The resistance typically faces violence

The resistance typically faces violence, and in some cases, it even divides communities. Provoked communities may end up in ethnic conflicts.

For example, the effects of land seizure and the loss of livelihoods have led to ethnic competition for land. Tensions between the Christian Dayak and Muslim Madurese communities in Kalimantan over historical land disputes have resulted in violent clashes due to diminishing land resources in the context of expanding oil palm plantations. Colonial-style divide-and-rule politics thrive (ECC, 2020, p. 3).

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In the next ten years, oil palm cultivation is expected to continue to increase. However, the current oil palm production in Indonesia often sacrifices traditional community lands.

Communities lose their livelihoods

Communities lose their livelihoods, and many villages strongly oppose the presence of oil palm plantations or companies.

Disputes are often directed towards existing oil palm plantations and those transforming forests. When disputes arise between oil palm companies and local communities, the communities usually become the victims.

As Ward Berenschot stated, “the legal system is of little use, and there are only a few NGOs in the field to address all these disputes” (Rachel Diaz-Bastin, 2016).

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Land disputes not only occur in areas already developed by companies but also in areas that eventually accept the presence of the company. The already degraded environment, unlike its original habitat, becomes a reason.

Thus, they may accept compensation and accept oil palm plantations. However, this is not permanent and depends on the company’s treatment of the local community.

Local communities that staunchly defend their areas usually do so because the environment has not yet been exploited. Therefore, the forest remains preserved and intact.

They defend it because their livelihoods depend on the forest and nature. Their livelihoods come from the forest’s resources, such as wood, rattan, and others. Local communities also depend on the forest ecosystem.

Land ownership based on customary law may not apply

Communities fear losing self-sufficiency because they would become dependent on money for their livelihoods. Indigenous communities are concerned about losing traditions and communal culture. Land ownership based on customary law may not apply.

The use of the forest for free and based on customs may no longer exist. Indigenous communities are also concerned about flooding, water pollution, and pests.

The root cause of the complexity of these land disputes is the involvement of local authorities, both regents and governors. They are the first to grant concessions to companies for land that is essentially owned by local communities. In line with what Berenschot said:

“The main cause behind these disputes (and the main challenge in mediating them) is not the character of the land but the capacity of those in power (regent/governor) to grant concessions to companies for land that communities depend on for their livelihoods.

The challenge in mediating these disputes is that oil palm companies make massive campaign contributions to politicians, who, in turn, grant them these concessions and facilitate the seizure of their land” (Rachel Diaz-Bastin, 2016).

Resistance to the oil palm industry in Indonesia has become international, with peaceful demonstrations by protesters. Legal avenues have also been pursued by local communities rejecting oil palm planting due to habitat destruction. Meanwhile, the government has made little effort to reduce land seizure problems. Instead, they encourage land seizure by granting plantation rights to oil palm companies over community land.

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Widespread corruption and uneven law enforcement add to the complexity of these land disputes. For example, after the violence in Kalimantan in 2001, the local government designated the legal status of indigenous land ownership called ‘adat.’

However, despite this decision, adat land in West Kalimantan virtually disappeared within three years, shrinking from 6.9 million hectares in 2003 to 60,000 hectares in 2006 (ECC, 2020, p. 4).

Oil palm plantations are growing rapidly in East Kalimantan

Not only are company lands problematic, but small farmers also face issues. Drawing from his research, Bayu Eka Yulian from Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) states that “Oil palm plantations are growing rapidly in East Kalimantan, especially smallholder farmers in silent mode.”

Bayu argues that while companies generally comply with stricter regulations, small farmers, including those with access to more capital and information, seem to expand their plantations on a scale from 0.5 to 3 hectares of land or even more, without restrictions.

Farmers agree that the situation will continue without intervention. Rapid expansion leads to damaging environmental changes, but farmers are also trapped as they heavily depend on monoculture crops, and their income is tied to a single source (Shahab, 2019).

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In addressing these disputes, a mapping of the issues with the identification of the types of disputes is necessary. Disputes related to land use and management and their impact on the environment and socio-cultural aspects. Sustainable oil palm development requires planning, policies, land management, and use. *)

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