Oil palm in Sumatra
Palm oil giant Wilmar Corp misled the public over a conflict between local communities and one of its subsidiaries in Sumatra, alleges a new report published by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP).
The report [PDF], which is based on an extensive field investigation, says that local Indonesian police (BRIMOB) in Jambi “systematically evicted” people from three settlements within in oil palm concession controlled by PT Asiatic Persada, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Wilmar, during a confrontation this past August. Security forces fired guns to scare off community members and subsequently bulldozed their homes. The action was widely decried by local human rights NGOs, but Wilmar “strongly repudiated the accusations” via a press release and letters to the organizations, according to FPP.
Now, after on-the-ground research, FPP says the complaints were well-founded.
“The investigation also shows that the initial reports of the NGOs and the letters of concern sent to Wilmar in August were substantially accurate,” the report states, adding a follow-up audit by an independent body did not clear PT Asiatic Persada.
FPP says their investigation confirms that the conflict stems from Wilmar’s failure to recognize the communities’ land claims in the area.
“Wilmar, which took over the plantation in 2006, has declined to recognize the communities’ land claims or offer them smallholdings within its concession instead offering them shares in a 50/50 1000 ha joint venture further west,” said FPP in a statement. “Some community members, who did join this scheme, have since repudiated it claiming it has brought them few benefits and further conflicts.”
Wilmar is the world’s largest palm oil trader and controls some 600,000 hectares of oil palm plantations around the world. The firm is represented on the Executive Board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is meeting this week in Malaysia for its annual conference. FPP timed the release of the report to coincide with the RSPO meeting.
FPP and other NGOs have at times criticized the RSPO — a multi-stakeholder body that sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production — for being slow to address grievances. FPP has filed complaints previously against Wilmar, including one that led the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) to suspend all lending to the palm oil sector for more than a year. The IFC has since established new safeguards for lending to palm oil companies.
On the eve of the RSPO meeting, FPP also released a second report, which lays out recommendations for companies, governments, and other entities in interacting with local communities on palm oil. The report — titled Oil Palm Expansion in South East Asia: trends and implications for local communities and indigenous peoples [PDF] and co-authored by SawitWatch, Samdhana Institute and the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) — presents case studies which show that oil palm plantations can be compatible with sustainable community development, while respecting local rights.
Wilmar did not respond to request for comment.