From Singapore to West Kalimantan

Down to Earth No 68  February 2006

Pak Cion Alexander is a peasant farmer who also has a law degree and is a community activist in the organisation Gerakan Rakyat Pemberdayaan Kampung (GRPK). He comes from Sanggau, West Kalimantan and attended the third RSPO meeting in Singapore. The following account is his response to questions about the problems facing his community, what needs to be done and what he has gained from the RSPO meeting.

The basic problem is when adat [customary] land is incorporated into a palm oil plantation as part of the main body of an estate. To indigenous communities, the loss of land means the loss of livelihoods. In my own case, all but 2ha of our property has gone and I have become a wage slave on my family land. Regional autonomy has made matters worse. The local authorities are so keen to bring oil palm plantations into their areas on the grounds that they increases local revenue, create employment, provide roads and make communities better off. There are now nearly 40 plantation companies in Sanggau alone.

It is true that Sanggau district assembly passed a local regulation on village governance (Perda No 4/2002) providing us with the chance to go back to our traditional system, based on the kampong. For generations, adat formed the basis of highly democratic, independent communities which had control over the natural resources within their customary lands. Decisions were taken by the whole community, not by an elite. The standardised system of village governance introduced by Suharto's regime in 1979 changed all that. But we wanted our adat system to be acknowledged. So we pressed for the new regulation as soon as regional autonomy was introduced.

However this regulation has itself become a problem and we are now looking to revise it. One problem is that our environment has changed radically over the past 25 years. Much of the forest has been cut down and the land allocated to companies. We have lost our livelihoods: we no longer have a ready source of timber or fish. Secondly, the version of the regulation which was passed is different from the one which had been drafted and approved by communities, so they have rejected it. Lastly, the regulation cannot be used effectively because the local government cannot make it fit within the limitations of the current version of regional autonomy, where Jakarta still has the major say over how our forests are used.

The high rate of 'forest conversion' means that even forest traditionally set aside for future generations (hutan cadangan) has been cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. The government regards land left fallow under traditional cultivation systems as 'neglected' or critical' and ripe for conversion. Indigenous people can no longer grow their own rice, vegetables and other crops; they must buy food. So the introduction of oil palm plantations has made local communities poorer.

Plantations obscure the natural boundaries between kampong and this leads to more conflicts between communities. Under the 'plasma' system*, people may be allocated plots of oil palm on adat land belonging to another community or even in another sub-district. So people no longer have control over their customary lands and this weakens the whole adat system.

Another problem is that companies misuse traditional governance systems. The government is complicit in this because it sets up its own, officially approved 'adat' organisations and appoints the leaders. It is these people who the companies approach to sign away community rights.

It is vitally important that indigenous rights are recognised in national legislation and are further strengthened though local regulations. The right to free, prior and informed consent is part of this, so we can choose to accept or refuse a plantation on our land. We also need to map the extent of our customary lands, so that companies cannot take it from us so easily. Plantations in Parindu, Kembayan, Tayan Hulu, Tayan Holir and Kapuas should return customary land to indigenous communities because the land procurement procedures violated national and adat law.

The RSPO Principles and Criteria on oil palm plantations are an important opportunity for indigenous people in Kalimantan to strengthen their customary rights. We need to have these standards translated into Bahasa Indonesia and even local languages, so that we can spread public awareness about them at the village level. It is also important that environmental organisations do not just use the Principles and Criteria to promote conservation at the expense of social issues. 'Plasma' smallholders have no bargaining power; they are unable to determine the price they get for their palm fruits. Our priority for the future must be to strengthen the position of smallholders.

*Large plantations used a nucleus estate/smallholder system. Newer plantations have different schemes, but the term 'plasma' is still commonly used to refer to the area cultivated by smallholders that supplies the 'nucleus' processing plant.


RSPO Criterion 2.2 The right to use the land can be demonstrated, and is not legitimately contested by local communities with demonstrable rights.
RSPO Criterion 2.3 Use of the land for oil palm does not diminish the legal rights, or customary rights, of other users without their free, prior and informed consent.