World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: Oil palm plantations encroaching on communities’ traditional land

The environment in West Kalimantan has changed radically over the past 25 years. Much of the forest that supported communities’ livelihoods has been cut down and the land allocated to companies that clear it to make way for oil palm plantations. Even forest traditionally set aside for future generations (hutan cadangan) is prey to “forest conversion”, since the government regards land left fallow under traditional cultivation systems as “neglected” or “critical”.

Now, indigenous people have lost their livelihoods and no longer have a ready source of timber or fish, nor can grow their own rice, vegetables and other crops any longer; they must buy food. So the introduction of oil palm plantations has made local communities poorer.

Plantations also obscure the natural boundaries between the customary units (kampong) leading to more conflicts between communities. Under the so called “plasma” system –commonly used to refer to the area cultivated by smallholders that supplies the “nucleus” processing plant-, people may be allocated plots of oil palm on customary land (adat) belonging to another community or even in another sub-district. So people no longer have control over their customary lands and this weakens the whole adat system.

When adat land is incorporated into a oil palm plantation as part of the main body of an estate, it would likely imply for the family to become a wage slave on their traditional land.

Regional autonomy has made matters worse, denounces Pak Cion Alexander, a peasant farmer from Sanggau, West Kalimantan, who also has a law degree and is a community activist in the organisation Gerakan Rakyat Pemberdayaan Kampung (GRPK). The local authorities are keen to bring oil palm plantations into their areas on the grounds that they increase local revenues, create employment, provide roads and make communities better off. There are now nearly 40 plantation companies in Sanggau alone.

As Pak Cion Alexander says: “It is true that Sanggau district assembly passed a local regulation on village governance (Perda No 4/2002) providing us with the chance to go back to our traditional system, based on the kampong. For generations, adat formed the basis of highly democratic, independent communities which had control over the natural resources within their customary lands. Decisions were taken by the whole community, not by an elite. The standardised system of village governance introduced by Suharto’s regime in 1979 changed all that. But we wanted our adat system to be acknowledged. So we pressed for the new regulation as soon as regional autonomy was introduced.”

But the problem is that “companies misuse traditional governance systems. The government is complicit in this because it sets up its own, officially approved ‘adat’ organisations and appoints the leaders. It is these people who the companies approach to sign away community rights.”

“It is vitally important that indigenous rights are recognised in national legislation and are further strengthened through local regulations. The right to free, prior and informed consent is part of this, so we can choose to accept or refuse a plantation on our land. We also need to map the extent of our customary lands, so that companies cannot take it from us so easily. Plantations in Parindu, Kembayan, Tayan Hulu, Tayan Holir and Kapuas should return customary land to indigenous communities because the land procurement procedures violated national and adat law.”

Article based on information from: “From Singapore to West Kalimantan”, Down to Earth No. 68, February 2006,

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