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Indigenous Dayak tribe pitted against palm oil giant in new film

An oil palm plantation in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • The Semunying Jaya community accuses the company of land grabbing and has sued it in West Kalimantan province.
  • The case was featured in Indonesia’s national inquiry into land conflicts affecting indigenous peoples.
  • Darmex is owned by one of Indonesia’s richest tycoons, Surya Darmadi.

A conflict between an indigenous group in Borneo and a major palm oil company is the subject of a new documentary by one of Indonesia’s most accomplished directors.

The film depicts the Dayak Iban people of Semunying Jaya’s struggle against a subsidiary of the Darmex Agro Group, whose owner, Surya Darmadi, is one of Indonesia’s richest men.

The case was one of those featured in the National Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into land conflicts affecting indigenous peoples. The community has separately sued the company for grabbing its land. Late last year, the lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that there was no evidence the community was indigenous, a decision the plaintiffs have appealed.

The film was directed by Nanang Sujana, a member of the Rejang indigenous group from Bengkulu in Indonesia’s Sumatra, as part of the “If Not Us Then Who” project, which explores issues facing the world’s forest-dwelling peoples under the rubric of climate change.

Rainforest in Indonesia’s Riau province, on the giant island of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In the film, Dayak villagers tell their side of the story of their struggle against PT Ledo Lestari, a subsidiary of Darmex’s plantations arm, PT Dutapalma Nusantara.

Residents recount the company’s destruction of the rubber trees from which they drew their livelihoods, the forest they held sacred and the cemetery in which they buried their ancestors.

“After they burned our house, my mother and I just wept,” a woman named Fransiska said. “All the memories of the family were there.”

Protests after the company’s 2004 arrival failed to move the authorities, so residents resorted to direct action, seizing heavy equipment. Several community members were thrown in jail as a result, charged with robbery and extortion.

Such “criminalization” of indigenous peoples was common in Indonesia, said Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

“This nation must not let the indigenous peoples remain colonized, still discriminated against, remaining the lowest class of citizens,” he said. “Because if this continues then the greatest threat is not only to indigenous peoples but to our unity as a nation.”

A screengrab from the Semunying Jaya film shows resident Momonus recounting PT Ledo Lestari’s destruction of the community’s rubber trees.

Under Nababan’s leadership, AMAN is campaigning for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to establish a task force on indigenous rights. The organization also wants Jakarta to pass a long-awaited bill on indigenous rights.

In 2013, Indonesia’s highest court took indigenous peoples’ customary forests out of state forests, opening the door for them to claim millions of hectares of land. But without national legislation explaining how the process should work, implementation across the archipelago has been piecemeal and largely nonexistent.

Momonus holds a photo from when he was in prison.

Darmex is Indonesia’s 11th-largest tycoon-controlled oil palm group in terms of revenue — $420 million in 2013, according to the consultancy Profundo. That year, the Jakarta Globe put owner and CEO Surya Darmadi’s wealth at $1.4 billion.

Darmex is one of the few companies to be kicked out of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity.

Last year, Darmadi was arrested for bribing the governor of Sumatra’s Riau province. The governor went down, but when it came to Darmadi, the court decided there was not enough evidence to convict.


Follow Philip Jacobson on Twitter: @philjacobius