JAKARTA — Frans remembers getting up just after sunrise on a September day last year in his village of Panca Mukti, in the Indonesian province of Central Sulawesi.
He’d been looking forward to that day, when he planned to harvest palm fruit from his 43-hectare (106-acre) farm.
“The sale from the harvest was meant for my family,” he tells Mongabay. “I’d pinned my hopes on my plantation to provide for my children’s future and our daily needs.”
But what should have been a bright day quickly turned dark.
“As usual I brought my machete to cut down my fruit,” he says. “But once I arrived at my plantation, I saw strangers picking my fruit.”
The strangers turned out to be from PT Mamuang, a subsidiary of the second-largest palm oil producer in Indonesia, PT Astra Agro Lestari. Angered that they had trespassed onto his land, Frans struck out, hitting one of their motorcycles with his machete.
Much later, on Oct. 6, he filed a complaint with the local police in Donggala district, where his village is located, for theft of his palm fruit. But by then, PT Mamuang had already reported him to the police for destruction of private property. Later that month, the police came to Frans’s house and arrested him in front of his wife and two children.
“The police grabbed me by my collar and strangled me,” he says. “And then I was beaten and kicked.”
In court, he presented papers to prove that he had received the land in 2000 from the Toraja indigenous group, and that he had routinely paid land taxes. For its part, PT Mamuang was unable to show the permits that it claimed entitled it to Frans’s land.
“We have valid cultivation permits in that region,” Tofan Mahdi, a spokesman for PT Astra Agro Lestari, told Mongabay. “That’s why we filed a report to the authority.”
In the end, the court ruled against Frans, handing down a verdict that activists condemned as rife with irregularities. Frans was convicted of destruction of property, and spent more than five months in jail.
Oil palm expansion
Frans’s story is not an isolated one in Central Sulawesi. Four farmers from Polanto Jaya village, also in Donggala district, were similarly prosecuted after PT Mamuang accused them of stealing palm fruit from farmland claimed by the company.
Activists say these smallholders are the latest victims of the push into the relatively pristine forests of Central Sulawesi — and the island of Sulawesi in general — by a palm oil industry that has largely depleted the forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo.
The growing frequency with which licenses for oil palm plantations are being issued in Central Sulawesi bears a worrying resemblance to patterns previously seen on those other islands, says Abdul Haris, head of the provincial chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental group.
“Central Sulawesi has become the biggest area for palm oil expansion,” he tells Mongabay.
As of the end of 2016, palm licenses had been issued covering a combined 7,132 square kilometers (2,753 square miles) of land in the province, Abdul says, citing data from the provincial plantation agency. A year earlier, the licenses accounted for 4,612 square kilometers (1,780 square miles) of land.
“That means that in the span of one year, there was an additional [more than] 2,000 square kilometers [772 square miles] of concessions given out,” Abdul says.
Given that much of the media coverage about palm oil in Indonesia tends to focus on Sumatra and Kalimantan, the fact that more than 7,000 square kilometers of palm concessions — an area greater than the state of Delaware — have been awarded in Central Sulawesi comes as a surprise, Abdul says.
He says four major oil palm producers operate in the province: PT Astra Agro Lestari, PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART), Sime Darby and Kencana Agri. PT Astra Agro Lestari’s concessions are the biggest in size, spanning a combined 1,113 square kilometers (429 square miles).
“No wonder there are many conflicts involving PT Astra Agro Lestari in Central Sulawesi,” Abdul says. “Over the past 10 years, the company’s been operating on conflict land.”
It’s not just local communities being displaced by the expansion of the palm oil industry. Central Sulawesi’s forests, a biodiversity treasure trove of species found nowhere else on Earth, are also under threat. In Buol district, palm oil planters may have cleared 680 square kilometers (262 square miles) of forest in 2015, accounting for two-fifths of their total planted area there, according to a report by the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI).
Another 128 square kilometers (49 square miles) of forest sits within zones that have been earmarked for plantations but not yet developed, the report said.
Between 2001 and 2016, Central Sulawesi lost 10 percent of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch data — an area amounting to 5,751 square kilometers (2,220 square miles). The data show tree-cover loss on palm oil concessions plantations appears to have intensified starting in 2009.
‘I get very scared’
Frans completed his sentence in April and was released from prison. But he and his family continue to be haunted by the conflict over the oil palms.
“I get very scared whenever I see someone in a police uniform coming to my plantation now,” he says. “I’m scared the abuse will happen again. My wife and my children are still traumatized as well.”
To Frans, the farm still belongs him, but the company doesn’t see it that way. Shortly after his release, Frans went to the farm to find the land had been fenced off.
He took the fence down — but that only triggered another complaint to the police for destruction of property. “I heard about it from the police, who said I would be arrested again,” he says.
With the threat of another stint in jail hanging over him, Frans joined one of the farmers from Polanto Jaya village, Sikusman, on a mission to Jakarta to plead their case to authorities they believed would be more sympathetic to their plight than the local government.
Accompanied by Walhi officials, Frans and Sikusman — who was also jailed for five months after PT Mamuang accused him of stealing palm fruit — reported their case to the office of the president’s chief of staff on May 16. Among those they met were Abetnego Tarigan, a senior adviser on social and environmental issues.
“They said they would follow up on this case and summon the parties we reported,” Walhi spokeswoman Khalisah Khalid tells Mongabay.
She says Abetnego and the other officials said it was regrettable that local law enforcement and other authorities in Central Sulawesi had failed to respond to the incident and address the matter adequately.
Cash for concessions
There’s a long history of local officials in Indonesia siding with palm oil companies in land disputes. And the murky links between the two grow even more insidious in the lead-up to elections, when officials running for re-election promise a flurry of licenses in exchange for campaign funding.
Elections are scheduled for later this month in three districts in Central Sulawesi: Morowali, Parigi Moutong, and Donggala, home to the villages of Panca Mukti and Polanto Jaya.
In Donggala, district chief Kasman Lassa is the strong favorite for re-election. He came to office in 2013 in a closely contested vote, having been acquitted the previous year of charges of embezzling district funds for a construction contract when he was a senior bureaucrat in the district government.
The coming election could lead to the unbridled expansion of oil palm plantations in the three districts if the incumbents abuse their powers to grant permits at the expense of the environmental and social consequences, Abdul says.
He cites the case of Amran Batapilu, the former head of Central Sulawesi’s Buol district, who was caught red-handed in 2012 taking a bribe in exchange for land concessions for plantation companies controlled by tycoon and politician Siti Hartati Murdaya.
If law enforcement officials in districts including Donggala are not cautious, Abdul warns, then “a case like Buol might happen again.”
Additional reporting by Morgan Erickson-Davis
Banner image: Protesters demand farmers from Polanto Jaya village in Donggala district, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, to be released from jail during a rally. Photo courtesy of Walhi Central Sulawesi.