Indonesia Prioritizes Companies, not Forests

In Indonesia,  30 percent of the country has been handed over by the government to some type of extractive industry. Often permits are granted without the knowledge or approval of local communities, raising “grave” human rights concerns. AMAN has recorded 153 land tenure conflicts in the last year, none of which have been resolved

By Robert S. Eshelman, | November 3, 2014

Mina Setra is of Dayak dissent. Her childhood home in West Kalimantan, Indonesia was converted into an oil palm plantation in 1976.

“It is a changed place,” she says.

But as much as the land was transformed, so, too, was Setra. She became active politically and is now Deputy Secretary-General of Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), an organization founded to give voice to people like Setra displaced because of extractive industries.

Situations like Setra’s continue to play out across Indonesia and are bringing about sometimes violent conflicts between indigenous groups, on one hand, and companies and the government, on the other hand.

A report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) analyzes 100 of these conflicts around the world in the mining, oil and gas, logging and agricultural sectors and examines how and why they come about. The report focuses on several emerging economies, including Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, Peru, and Indonesia.

In Indonesia, the report says, 30 percent of the country has been handed over by the government to some type of extractive industry. Often permits are granted without the knowledge or approval of local communities, raising “grave” human rights concerns.

“It’s crazy that local communities are not often seen as equal partners in the decisions regarding their land,” says Bryson Ogden, Private Sector Analyst at RRI.

The Initiative’s figures bear out the scale of Indonesia’s land tenure problem. Palm oil plantations cover 155,245 square kilometers of land. As much as 99 percent of the country’s 1,845 palm oil concession are for land that is inhabited. Government agencies have permitted 557 logging permits, covering another 302,505 square kilometers and, says the report, people live within perhaps 98 percent of these concessions. Wood fiber plantations extend over 128,829 square kilometers. RRI says people might live on every one of the country’s 570 fiber plantations.

The RRI report spotlights four land tenure conflicts in Indonesia, including West Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Papua. Violence, coercion, failure to adequately compensate displaced people, and endemic poverty, says the report, occurred during these cases.

“For indigenous peoples, losing the forests mean, not only losing our culture but our economic livelihoods,” says Setra. “Our equity is in the forests, the wood for houses, the meat for their meals, and it is our spiritual way of life. Everywhere in Indonesia you see this problem. Indigenous peoples are losing their forests, and losing their culture.”

AMAN has recorded 153 land tenure conflicts in the last year, none of which have been resolved, says Setra.

The conversion of often biologically diverse forests into monoculture plantations forces local and indigenous communities into dependency on the plantation economy. Setra says residents are forced either to work on the plantations or fall into economically precarity because the local economy has been subsumed by that of the plantation.

Others might flee for the promise of economic opportunities in urban areas but there’s no guarantee that their situation will improve.

“We lack the education and upbringing to find work in the cities and fall into gambling, prostitution, and crime,” says Setra. “School in Indonesia is very expensive and very few indigenous people can afford it. It’s hard to find different options for jobs in the cities.”

Setra emphasizes that communities often resist but protests can result in violence. Just a few weeks ago, she says, hired police officers and security shot and killed one man and wounded 11 others when they protested the granting of a concession in West Kalimantan.

“The Indonesian government — like any government — must understand that granting natural resource concessions cannot be considered economic development when they fail to account for the rights of the indigenous peoples and local communities who live and rely on these lands,” says Ogden.

“Only by clarifying and securing the customary rights of Indonesia’s people to their land can the government ensure that they, too, will be equal participants in the wealth and prosperity resulting from the development of their natural resources,” says Ogden.

By recognizing customary rights to land Ogden believes the government can ensure economic benefits for all parties. Fewer conflicts mean fewer work stoppages and payouts to security. Giving local communities a piece of the economic pie means that a rising tide might lift all boats.

“We know that respecting the rights of local communities delivers numerous benefits to the country in which they live — ranging from poverty reduction to climate change mitigation,” says Ogden. “But what’s relatively new is that respecting local rights also reduces risks to companies and can benefit their bottom lines. Doing the ‘right’ thing, is truly the right thing for all involved.”

Ogden sees potential in the growing number of companies committing themselves to sourcing their products in ways that respect local communities and environmental concerns.

“Some companies, like Nestle and Unilever, have earned positive ratings for cleaning up their supply chains and supporting small-scale farmers,” he says. “This is an important step, as responsible investors can help propel governments to ensure local peoples’ rights are fully protected before a concession is granted.”

Setra views the role of Indonesia’s new government as central to resolving land tenure conflicts but remains mindful of the long history of conflict over government permitting of extractive industries.

She points out that Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights is conducting an inquiry into land tenure conflicts and holding public hearings in seven regions.

But government bureaucracy, she says, remains an obstacle. Government maps need to be consolidated and reflect indigenous peoples’ rights to the land. Often maps from different ministries overlap with each other or do not accurately reflect concession boundaries.

“We offered to overlay all the maps in West Kalimantan and found that there is more land granted to concessions then there is in the province,” Setra says.

Like many in Indonesia, though, Setra sees a potential turning point emerging from the recent presidential elections.

“If the Minister of Environment appointed by Jokowi is strong, than there is hope that it can be better,” says Setra, “but there are so many challenges.”