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Palm oil company gives up land contested by local communities as part of sustainability pledge

An Indonesia palm oil company has relinquished part of its plantation concession to communities that traditionally use the land as part of its commitment to sustainability principles under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), reports the Forest Peoples Programme. The move is a response to a new procedure that could reduce conflict between palm oil developers and forest-dependent communities.

The company PT Agro Wiratama, a subsidiary of the Musim Mas group, will give 1,000 hectares of its 9,000 hectare concession in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) back to the community. The decision is a direct result of Agro Wiratama’s RSPO membership, which now requires member companies to publicly announce plans to expand their operations. The requirement aims to give civil society organizations and local communities an opportunity to lodge complaints and negotiate with developers before new operations begin. Until now, palm oil expansion has at times resulted in social conflict between traditional forest users — often indigenous people and small-scale farmers — and companies granted concessions by the government (most forest land is state-owned in Indonesia, independently of who actually uses it).

Palm oil is now found in up to half of packaged processed foods, including Girl Scout cookies. By virtue of its high yield, palm oil is a cheaper substitute than other vegetable oils. In an effort to reduce costs, some candy makers are using palm oil in place of cocoa butter in their milk chocolate products. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

“In the context of a pattern of development whereby millions of hectares of large-scale oil palm plantations have been established without consent on indigenous peoples’ land, this is a breakthrough,” said Marcus Colchester, Director of Forest Peoples Programme, in a statement. “We spotted PT Agro Wiratama’s plans to open up this area on the RSPO website and were able to alert our partners in Borneo.”

Forest Peoples Programme says that in this case, Gemawan, a local Indonesian NGO, alerted local people about the company’s plans, enabling them to negotiate with the local government, the company and the RSPO. The butapi, or regency head, recently signed off on the deal, making it official. The community was informed of the details last week.

“Our community has been trying very hard for so long to refuse admittance to palm oil plantation developers in our village,” said Azim Kitung, the Head of Mekar Jaya Village.

“We are very pleased that our land is secure now, because we’ve now got a chance to make choices about our lives. We now ask all the other parties involved in this decision to respect our choice,” added Kamarudin, one of the community leaders of the Kuayan community.

Forest Peoples Programme, together with Gemawan, note that Agro Wiratama’s decision has implications for other palm oil companies operating in Sambas Regency: 17 of them are members of RSPO.

Conversion of forest and peatlands for oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan. Photo taken by Rhett A. Butle in March 2011.

“We urge RSPO to apply the same procedures to these companies,” said Forest Peoples Programme in a statement. “Under the RSPO’s standards, companies are required to respect the customary rights of local communities and indigenous peoples and must not take over their lands without their ‘free, prior and informed consent’. Unfortunately, Indonesian laws and land administration do not recognize most communities’ land rights, so permits are routinely handed out to companies even though they overlap areas basic to peoples’ livelihoods and important for biodiversity.”

More than 3,000 land conflicts between palm oil developers and local communities in Indonesia have been registered with the country’s National Land Agency.

“What is needed is a reform of the laws so peoples’ land rights are recognized and secured,” said Norman Jiwan of SawitWatch, an Indonesian palm oil watchdog. “In the meantime we are relying on voluntary standards to try to get peoples’ basic rights respected, but the State should comply with international human rights norms rather than leave every situation to be argued out on a case by case basis. In this case Musim Mas has acted responsibly, once the concerns were raised, but unfortunately not all companies are so inclined.”

With more than 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, Indonesia accounts for more than 40 percent of global palm oil production. But expansion has had a high environmental cost: millions of hectares of forest and peatland have been cleared in the name of palm oil production. Environmentalists say palm oil is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

In response to these concerns, in 2004 a group of stakeholders came together to establish the RSPO, which set criteria that aim to reduce the social and environmental impact of palm oil. The first shipments of certified sustainable palm oil went out in 2008 and the RSPO label is expected to soon appear on food packaging to assure customers that palm oil ingredients have been sourced in a responsible manner.

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