Women and oil palm in an investment region

Forest converted to oil palm in East Arso, Papua. (Photo: Dok SKPKC FP )

DTE 99-100, October 2014

A view from Suskun Village, Papua.

By Yuliana Langowuyo, director of SKPKC Fransiskan Papua, who has been visiting the community in Susun Village at least once a month since 2011 to carry out research and provide assistance.

The forest handed over to the company wasn’t forest that had been damaged, but productive forest, containing ironwood trees, rattan, various kinds of animals, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and sacred sites. It provided a source of life for the indigenous community; a place for indigenous women to gather all kinds of things to provide for their families.

Investment in Keerom regency,[1] Papua, officially, at least, is aimed at bringing prosperity to the indigenous peoples living there – the Walsa and Fermanggam peoples. Yet it is clearly having a negative impact on people’s lives as well as the natural world they inhabit and depend upon.[2] These impacts range from the loss of forests, where indigenous peoples find food, medicines and other daily necessities; from the dwindling number of animals which they hunt to fulfil their families’ nutritional needs, the disappearance of sacred sites, which have a cultural value for the indigenous peoples; to the erosion of positive customary values which uphold the family and ensure a culture of mutual assistance. Now, by contrast, everything is measured in terms of money.

There have been a lot of changes in the way these indigenous peoples live their lives, not least in the position of women, facing incoming investment and dealing with the ways this affects the life of their communities. This article focuses on those changes for women, and in particular the women of Suskun village, an indigenous Papuan village in East Arso district, where the giant oil palm company, PT Tandan Sawita Papua (Rajawali Group) has been operating since 2008.

East Arso borders Arso Kota district, where there has been oil palm development since 1983, with state-owned plantation company PTPN II being the first to enter the area. It also borders Papua New Guinea. East Arso itself, has only just started to be developed for oil palm, meaning that the forests cleared by PT Tandan Sawita Papua – including their highly prized ironwood trees - were productive and served as the main livelihood resource for the community.

The communities living in PT Tandan Sawita Papua’s concession were not given any choice over whether or not to hand over their lands and the company’s environmental impact assessment was just a formality. Even though some of the community opposed the plantation, the company had already approached the indigenous leaders (kepala suku) in advance and the government issued the official permits allowing the company to clear the forests.

Women have become labourers

Women living in areas targeted for investment are typically left in the dark about the land transactions between tribal leaders and investors. These transactions are done by men. The women didn’t want their land to be sold. If there is no more land, they thought, their children will have nowhere to live in future.

From an economic perspective, women are disadvantaged by the loss of lands. They have lost the forests which used to provide for their daily needs (all of their forest has now been cleared), and they are now dependent on the company. They have to work as labourers for the company to earn the money to pay for the cost of living: school fees, food and drink, health costs and so on.

Women are oppressed; they are in a powerless position because they don’t want their land to be sold off, but land rights are in the hands of men. They don’t want to become labourers, but there is no other choice currently and they must still somehow meet their everyday needs, as well as cope with additional problems, like the conflicts that arise in the workplace between labourers – conflicts between Papuans from different indigenous groups as well as people from other parts of Indonesia, and conflicts between labourers and foremen or assistant managers.

Ever since the company came to their area, almost all of the community has worked for the PT Tandan Sawita Papua. The men have been employed as foremen, security staff and casual day-labourers.[3] The women in Suskun village also work as casual labourers; only older women are left in the village.

They work without clear written contracts (only a few of the men who held customary positions were given written contracts for security guard posts with the company); there is no health insurance; there are no other benefits. Also, there is no guarantee that there will be any work for the women: currently, many of the Suskun women aren’t working on the plantation because the company has reduced the workforce. According to the company, the cost of employing people is too high, while the palms aren’t yet productive and providing any income. There are too many labourers for the amount of work available.[4]

Infants between two and five years old are usually brought along to the workplace and looked after by older children, while some children older than six years old are also given work on the plantations, in the tree nursery where seedlings are grown. Any spare time after returning from the workplace to the village, is usually taken up with attending to the family (cooking the meal, washing the dishes, washing clothes, bathing the children). This means that women work longer hours and have a greater burden of work than men: they start their labouring jobs at seven in the morning, working through till 3 or 4 pm and then take care of the family and do household chores until they go to bed.

What Mama Kasmira Wants

What Mama Kasmira Wants, is an Indonesian-language video in which a Papuan women talks about the impacts of the Rajawali Group oil palm plantation in East Arso.

The video is directed by Yuliana Langowuyo and can be viewed at http://www.papuanvoices.net/2012/07/19/what-mama-kasmira-wants.html

Before working for the company, women spent most of their time in their small gardens, where they planted potatoes for their own family consumption. As most of this land has now been taken over for the plantation, these gardens are now limited to a very small area behind or beside their homes. Some plants, like pinang (areca nut) can be sold in the local town, Arso, which is 30 km away. This can take an hour or more to reach by motorcycle, on the unsurfaced road. According to the women, usually there isn’t any profit in it. “If there is pinang from the gardens, the women will sell it in town, but the money they make is all used to pay for getting there. There aren’t any taxis that take passengers from here, so the women have to take ojek (motorbike taxis) which cost up to Rp 100,000 for a trip to town and back, while the money they make from selling pinang sometimes doesn’t come to that, which makes them think twice about selling things in town,” said mama Kasmira, a woman who works as a labourer on the PT Tandan Sawita Papua plantation.

In the past, the community always gathered ingredients for their meals from the forest: sago, melinjo[5] - an important plant, as the seeds and leaves can both be eaten, while the bark is used for making noken, the traditional string bags used by Papuans. They also hunted game such as pig and ground cuscus for their own consumption, as well as cultivating crops like areca nut, which were taken to town to be sold for a small profit. Since the company arrived, they have no longer been able to get food from the forest because this now belongs to the company, and has been cleared for oil palm plantations. The money they make as labourers for the company is used to buy cooking ingredients in Arso for making the daily meal (usually rice with fish, tofu, tempe, and more rarely, because it is expensive, chicken). The older generation prefers to eat traditional Papuan food, when it is available, but the younger generation is more accustomed to and prefers rice.  There is a small kiosk selling food in the village, but this is expensive and is anyway often closed due to lack of stock.

Families in Suskun get rice when they need it under the government scheme targeting the poorest (the raskin scheme), but if the rationed rice isn’t enough to feed the family, they will buy some more themselves.

Domestic Violence, health and HIV/AIDS

Another serious problem arises from the fact that the men often waste the money they get from selling the land, on getting drunk and causing trouble in the villages – for example stopping passing vehicles, threatening the people inside with knives and demanding money from them. Many women become the victims of domestic violence when their husbands are under the influence of alcohol. Women also have difficulties with children at primary, junior and high schools who choose to join their parents at work and earn their own money rather than go to school (sometimes older children also stay at home to look after the younger ones while their mothers are at work). On the one hand, the women are pleased to see their children are helping out and earning money, but on the other hand they fear for their children’s future if they don’t get an education.

A further problem arises from the means of transport used to get to the plantation. Both men and women are taken to work in a truck which meets no health and safety standards whatsoever. They stand in the open truck, without using masks, so that they breathe in all the dust from the roads, which is damaging to their health. On the plantation itself, they have only recently started using masks when spraying or spreading fertilizer on the palms. Staying healthy is an important consideration for women especially, because of the heavy burden of work both on the plantation and at home requires extra stamina. The women have also reported sexual harassment on the trucks and at the plantation.

Alcohol and domestic violence is a problem which existed before the company came and women have long been the victims of violence. But with the company coming in, the amount of money circulating in the village (money from the regional government as well as from compensation payments from the company, and now also wages for plantation work), means that the men responsible for the domestic violence are consuming alcohol more frequently. SKPKC doesn’t have any official data, but from in-depth interviews with women in Suskun Village and in the town of Arso, the problem of domestic violence is ever present: “money that the men get as wages from the company, isn’t given to the women to manage, but used to buy alchohol and go with prostitutes” said one source who didn’t want to give their name. This creates conflict at home which ends up in the violence experienced by many women.

The large amounts of money coming in are beyond the community’s very basic financial management capabilities. The community, especially the men, spend their money on things which go against village morality and which, above all, harm women in the village. From interviews with village women, SKPKC learned that on the weekly payday, there are “women” who come from outside the area and stand and wait for the men to pick up their wages (a covert sex trade). When payday arrives, the women’s husbands buy some rice and send it home, but don’t appear at home themselves because they have gone off with those “women”.

This sexual behaviour increases the risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS. In Suskun village, HIV/AIDS isn’t something that is usually talked about and perhaps only and handful of people know about it. The risk is high because the community lacks adequate knowledge: this worrying situation needs the attention of the competent authorities, in this case the regional government (health service), Church, and NGOs. Prevention is better than medication.

Viewed from all these perspectives, women don’t derive any benefit at all from the company. Instead, they suffer multiple problems as a result of oil palm development on their land.

In Suskun, there is no place for women to go for protection against domestic violence, and no institution offering legal assistance, apart from relatives in other villages or the church, which will contact relevant institutions who can help. The women don’t go to the police because they don’t help much. Usually they just tell them to go home and sort it out in the family.

Concerns about the high level of violence against women like these women in Suskun have been raised by Komnas Perempuan, Indonesia’s Commission on Violence Against Women and have fuelled the campaigns of local CSOs. As well as domestic violence, Papuan women may also face violence at the hands of the security forces in this heavily militarized region – as has been documented by Papuan women themselves (see also section on violence against women (VAW) in separate article).

Low compensation

The land handed over to PT Tandan Sawita Papua for the company’s oil palm investment belongs to two clans (keret) in this village: the Bugovkir clan, covering 1,103 hectares and the Konondroy clan, 1,231 ha. Suskun has a population of around 152 households. The community is grouped in three locations: Wambes, Kampung Tua and Kampung Suskun. The compensation received by the indigenous community was very little: 38 Rupiah per square meter of land. This translates into real terms as follows: in order to buy one piece of fried banana costing Rp1000, the community would need to sell 26 square metres of their land including all the ironwood, rattan, melinjo, as well as the habitat for game animals on that land.

Overall, the land taken by the PT Tandan Sawita Papua from several villages in East Arso district covers 18,337.9 hectares, and compensation for the customary land held by the 8 keret, was paid at Rp384,000 (US$32) per hectare – again, just Rp 38  per square metre. The eight keret who gave up their land were the Putuy, Kera, Jombori and the Itunggir from Yetti village, the Bugovkir and Konondroy from Suskun Village and the Bewangkir and Enef from Kriku village. (There was one clan who did not sell their land to PT Tandan Sawita Papua, but this land was released to another company in 2012.) They got Rp7.040 billion in compensation, to be divided between the eight keret according to the amount of land they have released.

The compensation was not a one-off payment, but was a four-stage payment made over 4 years, called “Tali Asih” by the communities and the company. The first of these payments was made in February 2010, the second on 25 March 2011, the third on 15th July 2012 and the final one on 27 March 2013. The amount of money received by each keret varied depending on the amount of land released to the company. The money they received still had to be divided among each household within each keret whose land was sold to the company, so that for each housedhold, the maximum amount was Rp 2-5 million (US$ 167-417) for thousands of hectares of land released to the company.

When PT Tandan Sawita Papua’s lease on the land ends, the land will not go back to the community, but to the government. Even though last year’s ruling in the Constitutional Court establishes a clear legal basis for indigenous community ownership of their forests, it is doubtful that this will work in communities’ favour, because of the local government’s tendency to favour businesses over local communities. That’s why Papuan civil society groups are opposing investors and their own government on the policies which harm indigenous Papuans.


[1] In this article, we translate Kabupaten (sub-provincial administrative area) as ‘regency’, and Distrik (sub-Kabupaten administrative area) as ‘district’. The term Distrik in Papua and Papua Barat replaces the term kecamatan which is generally used in the rest of Indonesia. (Usually DTE translates Kabupaten as district and kecamatan as subdistrict.)

[2] DTE note: the author notes that the original Indonesian keutuhan ciptaan has a strong spiritual connotation (both from a Christian perspective as well as from the indigenous Papuan perspective which regards nature as a mother figure who needs to be treated well.

[3] In Indonesian: Buruh harian lepas. This means they are only paid for the days they work: there is no pay for holidays or when they are sick.

[4] Information provided by Pa Danang, of PT Tandan Sawita Papua’s Human Resources Department, at a meeting  on 19th March 2014.