Oil palm and the United Nations

Down to Earth No. 71, November 2006

Indigenous peoples are trying to restrict the expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations in Indonesia and other southeast Asian countries This article was written by Mina S. Setra of the West Kalimantan Indigenous Peoples' Alliance (AMA Kalbar), following her visit to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in New York earlier this year.

This year has been important for indigenous peoples all over the world. It marks the start of the United Nations' second Decade of Indigenous Peoples as well as the adoption of the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples by the UN's newly established Human Rights Council (see DTE 70). These policies have special significance for Indonesia's indigenous peoples at a time when massive expansion of oil palm plantations is taking place throughout the archipelago.

Representatives of indigenous peoples' organisations from the Asia region gathered in the coastal town of Pelabuhan Ratu in West Java from 7-10 April 2006 to prepare for the 5th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Participants discussed which of the many issues affecting indigenous peoples should be formally presented at this UN meeting. They decided to include the impact of large-scale oil palm plantations on indigenous peoples in Asia in general and in Indonesia in particular. They agreed that an Indonesian indigenous person would present this report. Indonesia is racing to replace Malaysia as the world's biggest palm oil producer. It is also turning a blind eye to the negative effects of expanding the extent of plantations. Plans to establish a 1.8 million hectare plantation megaproject along the Indonesia-Malaysia border on the island of Borneo are only one aspect of this policy (see DTE 68).

The report to the UN made the following points:

  1. The development of large-scale oil palm plantations has destroyed the local economy of many indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous people in affected areas have seen their living standards fall.
  2. Indigenous communities are now under the control of oil palm companies and are economically dependent on them. This has had devastating effects on their everyday lives, society and culture and has made it more difficult to resist unwelcome changes. Oil palm plantations have brought new problems, with a sharp increase in gambling, alcohol consumption and prostitution. Traditional patterns of communal tenure have been replaced by individual land ownership.
  3. Large-scale oil palm plantations are damaging to natural ecosystems and the environment, resulting in the silting up of streams and rivers, infertile soils and drastic reductions in biodiversity. Every year there are serious problems from the fires still used to clear land and from floods linked to forest destruction. Indigenous communities' traditional agricultural systems have been replaced by a monoculture. Plantations do not provide the huge range of products which indigenous people used to collect from the forests, including fuel, food and medicines. Communities now find it difficult to go hunting. Water sources are thick with sediment and often dry up.
  4. Cultural norms have changed: traditional spiritual beliefs have been replaced by commercial values. Indigenous communities have close spiritual links with their forests and other lands which form an important part of their identity. Oil palm plantations have even destroyed areas of sacred forest which provide the plants and other materials essential for healing ceremonies and other traditional rituals. No amount of money from oil palm plantations can compensate for the loss of indigenous knowledge and culture associated with forest destruction.
  5. The use of agrochemicals in oil palm plantations is a potential threat to indigenous people's health. Women are particularly at risk from heavily contaminated water through their everyday domestic activities. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
  6. The expansion of oil palm plantations has reduced indigenous peoples' power, access to information and participation in politics - even though it is indigenous peoples, not oil palm companies, who form one of the pillars of the nation.
  7. The process of land procurement for oil palm plantations is rife with long-term conflicts which have yet to be resolved. Violence and human rights violations are a feature of these disputes between communities, companies and the government and within communities themselves.

Representatives of Indonesia's indigenous communities officially presented their report to the UN in New York in the Session on Human Rights and to the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues (Rodolfo Stevenhagen). During the two weeks of the UN Permanent Forum (16-25 May 2006), they were also interviewed on the UN radio and met with the Indonesian delegation to the UN.

The report received support from a number of countries including members of the Asia Caucus such as Partners of Community Organisations (Malaysia), Chin Human Rights Organisation (Burma), Bangsa Adat Alifuru (Malucca), Jumma Peoples Network International (Bangladesh), Vanishing Rites (Bangladesh) and the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, as well as the Caucuses from Ecuador and Latin America.

The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) demanded that:

  1. The UN Permanent Forum takes a strong position against the Indonesian government and other UN members on the issue of oil palm plantations and their effects on indigenous peoples.
  2. The UN Permanent Forum holds an independent review on the impacts of large-scale oil palm plantations on indigenous communities.
  3. The UN Special Rapporteur carries out visits and writes a report on the human rights issues and other fundamental problems experienced by affected indigenous communities. The Indonesian government should demonstrate its openness by allowing the Special Rapporteur to visit Indonesia.
  4. Governments in Europe, North America, Malaysia and China stop any co-operation between their countries and Indonesia which promotes the expansion of oil palm plantations at the expense of indigenous communities.
  5. The Indonesian government takes steps to resolve land disputes, address violations of human rights and environmental destruction associated with oil palm plantations in Indonesia, with the full involvement of indigenous communities. The government should also provide alternatives for economic development to indigenous peoples adversely affected by oil palm plantations.
  6. The Indonesian government cancels the presidential policy statement on compulsory land acquisition by the state (PerPres 36/2005).

In response to the report, Ms Ida Nicolaisen, the Danish government's representative on the Permanent Forum, warned Indonesia that development - including the development of oil palm plantations - must not adversely affect indigenous peoples.

Indonesia responded through its official representative, Dede A. Rifai, that:

  • The Indonesian government respects indigenous rights. Its strategies on environmental protection and biodiversity conservation specifically recognise the role of indigenous peoples.
  • The Indonesian government has taken the first steps necessary to ensure that the palm oil industry and other development projects do not have negative environmental effects.
  • The ministers of agriculture and forestry consider that the government should prioritise 'abandoned land' in the border area, rather than forests for the development of oil palm plantations.
  • The Indonesian president has yet to make an official decision on land use and is currently consulting as broad a range of opinion as possible to determine the option that will be best for all the country's people, including those directly affected by the expansion of oil palm plantations.
  • These actions demonstrate that the Indonesian government always considers the principle of Free, Prior, Informed Consent in relation to its dealing with communities.

The Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Korpus, said that she would give the report serious consideration and promised to take immediate special measures necessary with respect to oil palm and other large-scale plantations in Indonesia, Asia and other countries in the world.

The UN Forum formally recommended that a special team be established to prepare a Working Paper on the development of oil palm and pulpwood plantations and other monocultures. This is to include the effects on indigenous communities with a particular focus on land tenure, natural resource management and livelihoods. Indigenous peoples' organisations, governments and other relevant institutions will work together to prepare the paper.

For further information see: Paragraph 6, Recommendations submitted by Rapporteur, Special theme: the Millennium Development Goals and Indigenous Peoples: Redefining the Goals.


Indigenous representatives at the RSPO

A group of twelve representatives of indigenous communities, accompanied by fifteen people from Indonesian CSOs, attended the 4th Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil in Singapore from 21-22 November. They were also active participants in a one-day meeting of the RSPO's Task Force on Smallholders, a body set up to represent the interests of the millions of peasant farmers throughout the world who are oil palm growers. Around one third of Indonesia's palm oil production - which totalled around 14 million tonnes in 2005 - comes from independent growers and smallholders who are part of large estates set up by companies.

The RSPO, which includes plantation companies, processers, buyers, retailers and investors in the palm oil sector as well as a few environmental and social NGOs, has agreed to voluntary principles and criteria intended to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. The main purpose of this year's meeting was to decide on systems to verify claims of sustainable palm oil production and to ensure supply chains linking palm oil producers and consumers.