Gunung Niut - a community rejects oil palm plantations

Down to Earth No 66  August 2005

An unprecedented gathering of communities from seven Dayak groups has rejected exploitation which disadvantages indigenous communities, including large oil palm plantations and gold mining. The statement was issued in May, at a 3-day meeting of villagers from the remote Niut mountains, in Landak and Bengkayang districts of West Kalimantan.

The area is the customary land of the Semambang, Sebiak, Busuti, Sepadakng, Kemayo, Entoro and Soong indigenous Dayak groups. A large part of Niut is primary forest, providing water for the towns of Ngabang and Bengkayang. There are no roads and access to the area is time-consuming and costly.

Research by the West Kalimantan NGO, PENA, shows that Niut is a potential target for oil palm plantations developed under state-owned plantation company PTPN XIII's new "family" KSK model (see box, separate article). In addition, the Landak district government has already issued 3 oil palm licences to operate in Serimbu sub-district. These represent another threat to forest conservation and the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of Niut.

May's meeting in Parek village in the Niut mountains, followed previous smaller workshops held by PENA with different communities in the region, aimed at raising awareness of the threats of large-scale oil palm development. The May meeting was organised and managed by the communities themselves - villages supplied rice and chickens to feed the participants - with fundraising assistance from PENA. The meeting was attended by local men, women and children, plus local and national NGOs and indigenous peoples' organisations. It was preceded by an adat ceremony to ask the earth spirits to grant a successful meeting that would benefit the host village of Parek. It was the first time their ritual objects had been used for around thirty years, when Christianity was introduced into the village.

In addition to the threats posed by oil palm development, the meeting identified eight other problems faced by the Niut villagers, including lack of self-confidence; drunkenness, karaoke and corruption; conflicts between adopted (Christian) and customary beliefs (adat); the lack of clear definition of customary land/resources boundaries; difficulties in marketing produce due to poor infrastructure; no financial institutions to manage cash; and new national legislation on compulsory land purchasing (Perpres 36/2005 - see also land article). This last problem was raised by Emil Kleden from AMAN, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, who led one of the meeting's sessions.

A nine-point agreement drawn up at the meeting, Sembilan Mupakot Niut, set out the community's determination to reject destructive development; to demand recognition of their adat rights and direct, fair negotiations with outside parties wishing to conduct non-destructive resource use. It agreed to demand that the district governments in Landak and Bengkayang provide education and health facilities, roads, bridges and electricity to develop the community's economic potential in the Niut mountains. The community also agreed it would conduct participative mapping to safeguard security and sustainability of natural resources, and that it would set up a credit union.


"We don't want to be continually in a marginalised, insecure and poor. Because of this we are going to struggle together towards sovereignty over our natural resources, towards educated and critical human resources to achieve self-sufficiency and prosperity."

(Sembilan Mupakot Niut, Niut agreement, May 2005)

(Source: DTE meeting report, Sembilan Mupakot Niut, May 2005)