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Losing land to palm oil in Kalimantan

3 August 07 14:49 GMT
By James Painter
BBC News, West Kalimantan

Barto is more sad than angry. He is a leader of a Dayak Kanayan community in a remote part of the rainforest in deepest Borneo.

Gazing out over a vast expanse of freshly planted palm oil plants, he says: "This is our ancestors' land which we have had for years, and now we have lost it."

Barto's village of Aruk is on the Indonesian side of the border with Malaysia, in West Kalimantan.

It is a key region earmarked for palm oil expansion, as Indonesia hopes to reap the benefits of a growing demand for palm oil products in China, India and Europe.

The EU recently agreed to replace 10% of its transport fuel with biofuels, including palm oil, by 2020.

The village is just one of several where the land rights of local communities and indigenous groups come head to head with new concessions given to palm oil companies.

Barto's cousin, 35-year-old Alexander, lost his 10-acre plot last year.

"I went to my land one morning, and found it had been cleared. All my rubber trees, my plants had been destroyed," he says, fighting back the tears. "Now I have to work as a builder in Malaysia, so I can feed my three children."

The company, a subsidiary of the Indonesian Duta Palma group, did offer Alexander compensation for his land.

But Alexander says it is not enough, and that he is yet to receive anything. "Deep in my heart I feel I don't want to let go of my land, but if I have to, they have to pay me," he adds.

The villagers say about 25 of their plots were cleared for palm-oil expansion without their consent.

In desperation, about 300 of them in April seized the bulldozer and trucks belonging to the company. The police intervened and gave the heavy equipment back to the company.

Legal concessions

There is a similar story of growing conflict right across West Kalimantan.

"There's been a very significant increase in land conflict since demand for palm oil shot up," says Jefri Gideon, campaign officer for Sawit Watch, an Indonesian NGO supported by Oxfam.

He said the number of communities involved in conflicts has mushroomed to more than 50 since 2005 in West Kalimantan, and to about 400 for the whole of Indonesia.

The concessions given to companies just in West Kalimantan have risen from about 500,000 hectares (1.2m acres) in the 1990s to more than 3.2 million hectares now - about six times the size of the tourist island of Bali.

A main part of the problem, said Sawit Watch, is that companies are given legal concessions to clear the land by the bupati, or district governor.

The villagers have rarely had any legal titles, but base their claim on what is called "customary land rights".

Sawit Watch and Friends of the Earth argue social conflicts are another downside to palm oil expansion, which has already been heavily criticised for being one cause of Indonesia's high rate of deforestation.

Prices for palm oil have risen sharply since early 2006. Indonesian and foreign companies want to take advantage. This year, Indonesia is set to overtake Malaysia as the world's largest producer of palm oil.

Government officials and industry analysts say the palm oil boom is helping to provide thousands of poor Indonesians with income and local employment.

But NGOs complain that too many companies do not follow Indonesian legislation or industry-set codes of practice.

Officials at the environment ministry are aware of the problem.

"Solving the conflicts requires money, such as hiring lawyers," says Agus Purnomo, special assistant to the minister. "So we have to tell the companies they can make money but they also have to pay to settle the conflicts."

"There are a lot of greedy companies in the world," adds Agus Purnomo. "We mustn't allow the bad companies to set the tone. We need the good ones to come and set the standard."

Set of principles

A report in July by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieu Defensie) and two Indonesian NGOs strongly criticised Wilmar, a Singapore-listed company, thought to be the world's biggest palm oil company.

It accused Wilmar of illegal forest clearances in West Kalimantan, inadequate Environmental Impact Assessments and clearing land outside its concessions. Wilmar denies the allegation.

The report also calls on Unilever, a major purchaser from Wilmar, to review its purchasing relationship with the company.

"We have a supplier audit programme," says Jan Kees Vis, Sustainable Agriculture Director at Unilever. "It's not 100% water tight, but as far as we know, the palm oil we buy from Wilmar comes from Sumatra, not from West Kalimantan."

Both Unilever and Wilmar are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which brings together retailers, producers and NGOs like Oxfam and World Wildlife Fund.

At its next meeting in Kuala Lumpur in November, the RSPO is expected to publish details of the creation of a network of certified plantations.

Mr Kees Vis agrees that some companies act responsibly, some do not. He hopes those that are members of the RSPO will gradually move their operations to comply with RSPO principles.

This may not come soon enough for the villagers in Aruk. Some are clearly keen to step up their protests.

At a highly charged public meeting, some shout that they want to burn down the offices of the company. Others are more moderate, preferring to do a deal and grow palm oil to supply the company.

But they all agree they want to remain "masters of their own land".

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