Ethics in agriculture: Human rights violations persist in Indonesian palm oil operations

Corn, Palm Oil Plantation, and Talamau Mountain at West Pasaman, West SumatraPhoto:Gthozy

As palm oil companies move in, local communities in West Sumatra are losing access to their native lands. Despite the difficulties, they are pushing back.

By Zachary Frye

A group of 50 rural communities in West Sumatra, Indonesia, are coming together to fight illegal access to their native lands. They claim that one of the world’s biggest palm oil suppliers, Wilmar International, along with its subsidiaries and suppliers, took over portions of their land without consent.

With the help of two local NGO’s, The Nagari Institute and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), the community is working towards a resolution with the company. However, they continue to face intimidation and criminalisation for pushing back.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Zulkifli, the director of the Nagari Institute and member of an affected community, detailed repeated attempts to undermine local voices after concerns were raised.

“Because indigenous peoples do not accept the company’s behaviour and continue to protest and defend their lands, the company with capital strength [sic] has made threats, arrested and sought to expel the waves of protests coming from the indigenous community,” he said.       

The RSPO isn’t mediating the dispute effectively

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an organisation that brings together stakeholders to promote sustainable palm oil practices. They certify suppliers that meet environmental and social impact standards and also act as a mediator in disputes between companies and local communities.

While their ideals are strong, some NGO’s, including Greenpeace, say standards and procedural violations are still widespread among RSPO members. According to affected communities in West Sumatra, the RSPO is dragging its feet on protecting communities. Locals claim that not enough is being done to push back against illegal takeovers of their customary lands.   

Two official complaints to the RSPO over Wilmar’s encroachment illustrate their concerns. In 2014, an initial complaint was filed with the RSPO. Three years later, the RSPO ruled that a Wilmar subsidiary failed to follow Indonesian licensing procedures, ordering the company to jointly map plantation grounds and negotiate a benefit-sharing plan.

While a successful outcome for the community, intimidation and threats from subsidiary associates are undermining the process. A formal complaint was lodged in 2015 to deal with the threats faced by local communities, with no resolution thus far.

Palm oil plantation
Photo Credit: Craig Morey/Flickr

Furthermore, a community meeting with Wilmar and the RSPO at the Sustainable Palm Oil Roundtable in November 2018 produced no substantive changes. Despite commitments from both organisations to investigate alleged abuses, locals claim little has changed. Some 50 communities continue to face intimidation and barred access to customary lands.

For Zulkifli, the ordeal represents a broken system.

“Wilmar International and the RSPO have failed to address these systemic problems. A year ago, they promised to conduct a joint risk assessment, but despite regularly urging them to turn commitment into action, no assessment has taken place,” he said.   

Wilmar needs to double down on its responsibility to local communities

Wilmar International brands itself as a world leader in the processing and merchandising of edible oils. According to company data, net profit surged by 27.4% in 2018, buoyed by a 37.4% increase in tropical oil profits and a 20.3% increase in oilseeds and grains profits.

As for its ethical commitments, the company’s website claims it prioritises social initiatives and environmental standards. The cases in West Sumatra, however, suggest there is more work to be done to ensure internal standards are fully met within its supply chain.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, a Wilmar spokesman recognised the issues surrounding the firm’s operations in West Sumatra. They acknowledged that there are areas for improvement, but highlighted the company’s commitment to sustainability in the region.

“Wilmar commissioned the Earthworm Foundation (EF), formerly known as The Forest Trust (TFT), in September 2018 to conduct a thorough evaluation of issues raised against Wilmar’s internal systems on social grievance as part of an ongoing long-term initiative to identify and develop lasting resolutions for conflict in West Sumatra.”

“EF have thus far engaged hundreds of stakeholders in Pasaman Barat, West Sumatra, including members of the affected community, village heads, community and customary leaders, smallholder cooperative units, local NGOs, as well as Wilmar management,” the spokesperson claimed.

“Based on initial findings by EF, we have begun working on implementing the recommendations by EF to address these gaps whilst continuing engagement with the affected communities and to resolve the related conflicts in Pasaman Barat.”

But according to EF, inadequate engagement with affected communities and a lack of accountability over grievance management is leading to high levels of frustration among locals. They suggested a revision of all past and existing agreements with communities to bring them in line with company principles.

A lack of community engagement and accountability is clearly hindering efforts to provide lasting resolutions to these conflicts. Wilmar says the RSPO scrapped its planned investigation since the findings in EF’s study “were comprehensive and would render the earlier agreed-upon exercise redundant.”

The FPP, however, argues EF’s study was hardly comprehensive. FPP claims that most of the 50 communities facing barred access and threats were not involved in the study. The EF report says discussions took place with four groups of communities.

Human rights violations cannot be ignored

Conspicuously missing from EF’s report are statements on the alleged intimidation communities have faced for speaking out.

When asked about any existing knowledge of allegations of intimidation by Wilmar subsidiaries, the spokesman demurred. They highlighted the company’s human rights and whistleblower policies and reiterated Wilmar’s “zero tolerance for threats, intimidation, harassment, retaliation and especially the use of violence against anyone who raises concerns.”

But the FPP and the Nagari Institute are adamant that company intimidation is affecting locals’ wellbeing. As an example, the FPP alleges that upon returning to the village from an initial meeting with Wilmar and the RSPO in November 2014, community leaders were interrogated by the police for using funds generated by the community palm oil plantation to pay for the trip.

Local community members employed by a Wilmar subsidiary, who later confessed to accepting payments to make false statements, made the complaint. Despite withdrawing the statements, they were still used as evidence in a case against the community leaders. Most were found guilty and sentenced to between a month and year in jail.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Patrick Anderson, a policy advisor with the FPP, says community criminalisation continues to mar the push for fair land rights in West Sumatra.

“[Communities] are sure that the company is behind the intimidation and criminalisation. Most of those leaders are facing further charges today. This is despite the fact that [the community] won their case with the RSPO, and has said to Wilmar that they are willing to effectively lease their lands that had been taken over for palm oil back to Wilmar. Similar tactics are used by other Wilmar subsidiaries in West Sumatra, as well as other tactics to intimidate women and girls,” he said.

According to village testimony, the local police violently threatened women working in fields claimed by a Wilmar subsidiary. One village woman, Tini, claims her house, along with her and her children’s possessions, was burned down after settling on disputed land.

Large companies like Wilmar have a duty to ensure their products are made in partnership with the communities they work in, which includes the full right to protest concerns without intimidation. Wilmar’s human rights and sustainability policies are commendable, but unless they are supported by robust enforcement an oversight mechanisms, they amount to hollow promises to communities like Zulkifli’s.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.