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Palm oil fuels Indonesia deforestation

Indonesia is the world's top palm oil producer, but that has led to land grabs and violence against indigenous people.

Last updated: 04 Apr 2014 11:11
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Ethnic Dayak villagers discuss encroachment by palm oil companies on their land [Dana MacLean/Al Jazeera]

Gohong, Indonesia - Anang Sugito, 47, stands in front of a 100-strong crowd pointing to a hand-drawn map on the wall. His voice cracks when he talks about the future of Dayak village.

"If we sell off our forests, our children will be landless. They will have their own children, and what would they do?" asked Sugito, 47, the village secretary for the 7,000 household strong community of Gohong, and father of five children ranging from 10 to 18-years old.

In a country where indigenous activists and leaders defending their land are sometimes intimidated, harassed, and killed by palm oil companies and their collaborators, many Dayak villagers - who have practiced shifting cultivation in forests in Central Kalimantan for hundreds of years - do not understand why they have to go to court to defend forests against conversion to mono-crop palm plantations.

"It is only natural, and as it should be, that we do everything in our power to hold onto our land," said Abdul Muin, an ethnic Dayak hailing from the neighbouring village of Sei Dusun, where villagers have filed lawsuits against oil palm corporations with concessions to 11,000 hectares of peatland forest.

While so far 11 companies have had their permits revoked as a result, the country hosts more than 2,500 local suppliers and Muin said it is a constant struggle to fend them off.

There is no way we can cultivate livelihoods in this environment. Oil palm plantations make everything dead, even there are no more birds.

- Abdul Muin, ethnic Dayak villager

Demand for palm oil and energy in Indonesia continues to drive deforestation and displacement of local communities in a country that has already lost 64 million hectares of tropical forests to agribusiness in the past five decades, according to the World Research Institute (WRI), an international research organisation focusing on sustainable energy and conservation.

In recent years, a billion dollar bilateral agreement with Norway has encouraged the Indonesian government to issue moratoriums on forest clearance to protect its carbon-loaded peatland.

Confusion over land tenure, however, continues to cloud forest protection, with potentially devastating environmental impacts on Indonesia's remaining 22 million hectares of peatland forests, which globally make up five percent of peatland area, according to the National Council on Climate Change.

Indigenous groups in Central Kalimantan, and their advocates, continue to call for recognition of their rights in the context of land development, to stop human rights violations against their communities and preserve their way of life.

Development versus rights

In May 2013, the government extended its moratorium on deforestation initiated in 2011 for two years, and at the same time a landmark Constitutional Court ruling distinguished customary forests from state forests, finally acknowledging indigenous rights after more than 10 years of struggle by 2,000 indigenous groups countrywide represented in government negotiations by the Indigenous People's of the Archipelago Alliance (AMAN), which is also assisting with participatory mapping for the government's One Map Initiative.

"Almost three years into the moratorium on new forestry licenses, we have achieved quite a bit," said Nirarta Samadhi, the deputy head for the President's Delivery Unit on Development Monitoring and Oversight on Forest Monitoring. Nirarta said the One Map Initiative - meant to create a single authoritative reference for land use planning countrywide - will be released at the end of June 2014.

Last year more than 8,000 land conflicts were registered with the National Land Use and Planning Agency and "so far none of these have been resolved," said Verania Andria, the UN Development Programme in Indonesia's programme manager for sustainable energy.

Land tenure is a major issue that confounds development in rural areas, including for sustainable energy to support the rapidly growing capital Jakarta, which has seen an annual growth rate of roughly 3.6 percent per year since 2000 and in 2013 hovered at 10.187 million people, Andria said.

Ethnic Dayak villagers have vowed to fight companies eyeing their land [Dana MacLean/Al Jazeera]

In the three years since the first moratorium was announced, an additional five million hectares of forest have been lost, according to Greenpeace Indonesia.

"The government sees dollars earned through palm oil export as one of the means of raising the standard of living for Indonesians as a whole," said Will McFarland, a green growth officer with the London-based think-tank Overseas Development Institute.

The economic benefits of the multi-million dollar industry are not filtering down to indigenous communities, who say they are losing everything. "There is no way we can cultivate livelihoods in this environment. Oil palm plantations make everything dead, even there are no more birds," said Muin.

Palm oil plantations near Gohong, subsidiaries of the Singapore-based Wilmar International Group, are now infringing on 8,000 hectares of customary lands owned by three villages near Gohong, and offering 250,000 Indonesian rupiahs (US$22) per hectare.

"How can we monitor what the companies are doing if they are encroaching? And they are offering us this to give away our land forever?" Muin said incredulously.

Environmental ruin

Meanwhile, farming on peatland, which requires both drying out the soil and creating irrigation canals, also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are stored in peatland soil.

"Once you plant with palm oil, the rainforest will never regrow. Dry peat lands release enormous amounts of GHG emissions to the atmosphere and easily burns. The haze from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan currently causes respiratory illnesses and forces schools to shut down in the region, even as far as in Singapore and Malaysia," said Anja Lillegraven, the coordinator for Rainforest Foundation Norway's Southeast Asia Program based in Oslo.

Indonesia is currently the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China, despite having a smaller population. Emmissions are attributed to high rates of deforestation, which in Central Kalimantan was recorded as a loss of 1.3 percent of forests per year from  2000-2010, according to the Center for International Forestry Research.

A palm oil plantation in Gohong [Dana MacLean/Al Jazeera]

"What we would like to see is for Indonesia to strengthen and secure its place as a palm oil producer whilst finding ways to reduce environmental impact," said McFarland.

Environmentalists are pushing for corporations to develop degraded land instead of clearing primary forests, but the confusing land tenure system and profits from timber make this unlikely.

"Currently, it seems easier to obtain a license for a piece of forest that no one has been doing anything on than to find something previously allocated for land use, such as pre-cleared or already degraded land," McFarland said.

Companies often prefer concessions to natural forests for the value of the wood, noted Lillegraven. "It is not unusual that companies apply for a plantation company only to get the timber. After taking the valuable timber, the land is left idle," she said.

Meanwhile communities are left without the land they used to rely on for planting. "It is unnatural, the soil nutrients are sucked dry," said Muin.

Rights violations

The Dayaks have endured a history of displacement because of land development projects, mostly logging and palm oil. In Borneo, roughly 2.5 million people have been displaced since the 1970s, according to Minority Rights Group International, a London-based advocacy campaign.

"The abundance of natural resources [on our land] has not been a blessing. It has been the opposite for me and my family," said Nisil Tuman, 53, an ethnic Dayak villager hailing from Buntoi in Central Kalimantan, where residents were repeatedly approached to sell their land between 2008 to 2013.

We depend on the forest for livelihood. The trees, our culture and sacred sites, are all rooted in the land. We are going to commit to this battle together.

- Anang Sugitu, Dayak villager

Upon the 2,000 villagers' steadfast refusal, thousands of hectares of native peatland were seized by palm oil companies regardless.

"The gains need to be shared more equally among the communities ... the problem is that the communities are often not a big enough of a consumer market [to be of consequence] for the companies," said UNDP's Andria.

While Tuman and his fellow villagers have gone to Jakarta to protest in past years - and sewn their mouths shut in a sign of their frustration with feeling voiceless - he said it has been in vain. Despite legal changes he said there is no greater respect for indigenous land rights.

"Legal rights on paper count to nothing if they cannot be enforced," said William Sunderlin, the head of research for forest conservation with the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research.

The killing of an activist in Jambi, Sumatra, earlier this month indicates the "lawlessness of the frontier", said Forest Peoples programme director Marcus Colchester, adding intimidation and harassment are all too common.

Forcible evictions and ignoring indigenous rights while attempting to cultivate palm oil has had had "dire cultural, social and economic consequences" on populations, said a study by Rainforest Foundation Norway in 2013.

"There has been longstanding resistance by the government to take local rights seriously, as a result of the tremendous pressure from companies for licenses," said Sunderlin. "Tenure issues may seem local but their origins are often national in character."

Sugitu said: "We depend on the forest for livelihood. The trees, our culture and sacred sites, are all rooted in the land. We are going to commit to this battle together."

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Al Jazeera
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