World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: Criminalization of social leader for the benefit of oil palm corporation

As exposed in previous WRM Bulletin issues, criminalization is part of a strategy aimed at silencing any protest generally against the extractive activities of transnational corporations (see WRM Bulletin Nº 125). It is happening all over Southern countries. And it is happening right now in Indonesia, where it has victimized another fighter of social resistance to land-grabbing by palm oil-companies in the country. 

The powerful agribusiness transnational group PT Sinar Mas, apart from wide investments including chemicals, finance, banking, hotels, telecommunications, pig-breeding, shares the world’s largest holdings of oil palm lands and is Indonesia’s largest palm oil company. 

Operations of its subsidiary PR Kresna Duta Agroindo (KDA) in Jambi province, on the east coast of central Sumatra, have raised conflict among villagers of Karang Mendapo. The company aggressively expanded its oil palm plantations grabbing forest and rubber plantations of Karang Mendapo farmers. Some 600 hectares were illegally cut down to integrate the land to a larger oil palm plantation, for which KDA distributed a monthly fee of 58.000 rp (3,50 €) to each registered farmer without clearly stating the purpose of such payment. 

According to Watch Indonesia! (1) “in August 2008, the villagers seized the land – that in fact is their own – and harvested the yields of the oil palms there. Ever since, they have been subject to intimidation and maltreatment by unknown persons presumably acting on behalf of KDA. These incidents were reported to the police but to no avail.” 

“As part of the protest, the citizens of Karang Mendapo decided to return the fee they had received from KDA in August. However, KDA refused to take back this money”. The villagers decided then to entrust the money on resistance leader Muhammad Rusdi -who is also the village’s mayor- until KDA would receive it. 

Rusdi was arrested on 28 January 2009 and still remains in detention at the district police facilities. He was interrogated and there are reports that he was maltreated. It seems that Rusdi was arrested under the alleged charge of misappropriation of the money entrusted to him by his fellow villagers.

The communiqué of Watch Indonesia! says that “local activists and the population of Karang Mendapo fear that Rusdi is being framed by local law-enforcement authorities acting on behalf of KDA. Local activists fear that Rusdi is being criminalized to suppress the protest of victims of abusive land-grabbing practices that palm oil-companies apply Indonesia-wide.” 

With 7.1 million hectares planted with oil palm, Indonesia is positioned as the world’s leading palm oil producer. The urge to plant oil palm has not ceased. On the contrary, on 18 February this year, Indonesia acknowledged it had quietly lifted a ban established since December 2007 on the use of peat land for palm oil plantations (2). This implies that around 2 million hectares of peat land eligible for palm oil plantation will be cleared and drained, thus releasing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere that will add to global warming. 

Mounting criminalization, deforestation, destruction, land-grabbing, global warming: the fruit of oil palm tastes bitter than ever. 

A campaign has been organized to demand Rusdi‘s immediate release and a thorough investigation of how he came to be detained at all. You are invited to take action and send letters –a suggested sample is available- to Indonesian authorities through Watch Indonesia!’s website at, or Salva la Selva campaign at  

(1) “Urgent Appeal: Resistance against Palm Oil – Unlawful Arrest of farmers’ resistance leader in Jambi, Indonesia”, Watch Indonesia!, Berlin, 5 February 2009,

(2) “Indonesia reopens peatland to palm oil plantation”, Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, 18 February 2009,