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Wilmar grabbed indigenous lands in Sumatra, RSPO finds

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Palm oil is used in everything from detergents and cosmetics to breakfast cereals and ice cream. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

  • The Kapa are a Minangkabau people in Indonesia’s West Sumatra province.
  • The community accused Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil company, of planting oil palm in their territory without their permission.
  • Wilmar is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, meaning that it must respect the right of communities to veto development projects on their land.
  • The RSPO recently decided that Wilmar had violated the Kapa’s right to “free, prior and informed consent.”

On Jan. 1, 2017, the world’s largest association for ethical palm oil production came to a decision that, if implemented, will allow the Kapa community of West Sumatra, Indonesia, to retain control of their indigenous territory. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) found that Wilmar International had taken over Kapa lands without their consent.

Wilmar is a major processor and trader of the ubiquitous commodity, used in everything from ice cream to lipstick. The Singapore-headquartered firm also owns oil palm estates on Sumatra and Borneo islands, the source of most of the world’s palm oil — and where conflicts between agribusinesses and communities are rife.

The Kapa community filed a complaint with the RSPO in October 2014, stating that Wilmar had established a plantation in their area in violation of both RSPO standards and Indonesian law. The Kapa also learned that Wilmar was seeking to get a Land Use Rights (HGU) permit in their territory, a move that if successful would have permanently erased their rights. The HGU effectively rounds off the permitting process for oil palm growers, allowing them to operate for 35 years.

With the help of the Forest People’s Programme (FPP), a UK-based NGO, Wilmar initially agreed to explore alternative legal arrangements at a meeting with Kapa representatives in Kuala Lumpur alongside RSPO Complaints Panel staff. Despite this, Wilmar went ahead and obtained a HGU anyway.

“A clearer violation of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ is hard to imagine,” said Marcus Colchester of the FPP, referring to the principle that a community has veto power over development projects in their area. Wilmar’s membership in the RSPO obligates it to respect that principle.

Indonesia’s West Sumatra province. Image by TUBS/Wikimedia Commons

“Communities object so strongly to companies acquiring HGU on their lands because the permits permanently extinguish communities’ land rights, as after a HGU permit expires the land reverts to the State and does not go back to the people,” Colchester added in an email.

After waiting over two years for a ruling, the Kapa received the decision they were hoping for. According to the RSPO, Wilmar must respect Kapa land rights and obtain the community’s consent before applying for an HGU. In addition, the disputed land must be measured and mapped by an independent expert, and the results of this mapping must be used to renegotiate the community’s partnership with Wilmar, by land leasing or profit-sharing, which the RSPO says will allow the community to benefit from the company’s presence on their land.

In a statement issued to Mongabay, the agribusiness giant appeared to show its willingness to comply with the ruling. “Wilmar respects the decisions of the RSPO Complaints Panel and will act accordingly,” said Perpetua George, the company’s assistant general manager for sustainability.

Gampo Alam, the leader of the Kapa community, said in a statement: “We have struggled for more than a decade to have our rights recognized after losing lands to Wilmar. We hope that Wilmar International will now honor the ruling of the RSPO, and will quickly restore our right to the lands that it took without our consent. For the Kapa, our customary land cannot be sold as it is our identity.”

According to Colchester, there was uncertainty over whether the RSPO’s Complaints Panel had the independence to find against such a big firm. “The decision demonstrates that even the largest companies do not enjoy impunity and that land grabbing is unacceptable to the RSPO,” he said.

Rural West Sumatra. Photo by Robert Wilson/Flickr

RSPO communications chief Stefano Savi cited the complexity of the case as being partially to blame for how long it took the roundtable to reach a decision, specifically the legal and procedural complexities over how the land was initially acquired.

In 2015 the RSPO came to the preliminary decision that the initial acquisition of the land was done by the local government rather than Wilmar, and that the dispute should therefore be settled by the local government and courts. But upon further investigation the roundtable determined that the initial acquisition had violated the law by not involving the National Land Agency (sinced absorbed by the Ministry of Land and Spatial Planning) and an official certifier of title deeds.

Although the RSPO has handed down a decision, there is still work to do. “In relation to this case, while a decision is reached, it is not the end of the road for the RSPO Complaints Panel,” Savi said. The RSPO now must continue to monitor and engage with Wilmar and the Kapa to ensure that their recommendations are being implemented.

The length and complexity of this case underscores the difficulties communities often face when standing up to big corporations. Those communities, such as the Kapa, that receive support from NGOs like the FPP to help them access the RSPO’s complaints mechanism often fare better in such struggles.

Despite these obstacles, for the Forest People’s Programme, as well as local communities, the ruling is a source of hope. And a demonstration that companies, no matter how large, must respect indigenous peoples and the rights to their customary lands.

“Neighboring communities are now also looking to recover their lands,” Colchester said.

Banner image: Oil palm fresh fruit bunches in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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