"It all stems from the land: if we don't have land, how can the community prosper?" This was the point made by Mat Cutik (52), from Talang Nangka village, Ogan Komering Ilir district, in the province of South Sumatra.
Together with around 900 other families in the village, Mat Cutik is fighting to keep his land out of the hands of oil palm plantation companies PT Patri Agung Perdana and PT Persada Sawit Mas.
The Movement to Defend Customary Land Rights (GPHTA) was set up by local villagers in August 2005 as an umbrella organisation for people who refuse to accept oil palm plantations. For the Talang Nangka villagers, their land provides them with their living, and has done so for generations.
The majority of Talang Nangka villagers work the land according to the local sonor system, planting rice in the marshy areas during the dry season. One hectare of sonor rice can produce 300-400 cans (kaleng) of rice, the equivalent of three to four tonnes, but it is rare for villagers to produce this much in one year. Rice is grown mainly to supply the family's own needs and it is unusual for them to have any surplus to sell.
In the rainy season, sonor land can't be utilised for farming, but it can still be used for catching fish, which is more often sold to provide cash income. Fishing rights are communal: anyone can take fish from the village sonor areas.
The land outside the marshy areas is used for rubber cultivation and for keeping buffalo. The community's rubber trees can produce 7-10 kg of raw rubber, which fetches Rp7000-Rp9000 (around US$1.00) per kg at current prices. Rubber tapping only takes around six hours and is done from five in the morning until eleven, after which villagers can attend to other work.
Buffaloes are not only useful for ploughing and as a source of meat, but their puan (milk) is mixed with palm sugar and made into a sweet milk called gula puan, used for mixing with tea or coffee. It is sold for Rp35,000 (US$4) per kilo, for additional income.
Another source of extra income comes from selling mats made from rushes that can be collected from the marshland. These are sold for Rp3,000 (US$0.34) each.
It is clear to the community that their current farming system is able to fulfil their needs. Mat Cutik himself feels he is doing well as he can supply his family's basic needs from what the land produces.
The villagers don't want to plant oil palm because they are not certain it will bring in enough money to guarantee the same level of prosperity. This is because oil palm is a crop that needs a lot of attention, special tools as well as fertilisers that are getting more expensive each year. In contrast, cultivating sonor rice, growing rubber, keeping buffalo and making rush mats don't involve many costs.
Opening more oil palm plantations here will destroy community land. And without their land, the villagers can't make ends meet. Once the land has been converted into oil palm plantations, today's prosperity will be nothing but a fond memory.
(Source: DTE interview with Mat Cutik, coordinator of Gerakan Perjuangan Atas Tanah Adat - GPATA; Ilham Khoiri dan BM Lukita G. Di Balik Hijaunya Kebun Sawit. Kompas, 25 Februari 2006,www.kompas.com/kompas-cetak/0602/25/Fokus/2460758.htm)
Massive expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia is being strongly opposed by many local communities and civil society organisations. The NGO network Sawit Watch reports 360 conflicts related to oil palm development up to 2006, and predicts that if expansion goes ahead, 20 million hectares of land will be devoted to oil palm, on top of the existing 6.4 million hectares.
The oil palm invasion
The demand for palm oil for biofuel projects is forcing the pace of development: by 2010 the Indonesian government is planning to develop 5.25 million hectares of biofuel crops (oil palm, jatophra and cassava). Palm oil prices are rising month on month on international markets and Indonesian food prices are likely to increase as a result.
Much of the expansion - past and future - is on land classed as forest areas by the government, and much of this is traditionally owned and used by indigenous peoples, whose customary rights are typically given minimal or no recognition by the government and plantation companies.
There is widespread concern that the oil palm invasion will create even more conflict and human rights abuses, in addition to clearing forests and destroying peatlands, which will contribute further to global warming. Now that Indonesia has passed its new investment law, the plantation developers will have greater scope to access land and will have the legal right to stay there for as long as 95 years (see separate article).
For further background see DTE 72 and DTE 71. Sawit Watch's two 2006 reports, Promised Land: Palm Oil and Land Acquisition in Indonesia, and Ghosts on our own land: oil palm smallholders in Indonesia and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, are available in English and Indonesian from www.sawitwatch.or.id and www.forestpeoples.org.