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Indigenous Dayak man jailed after Indonesian palm oil firm alleges theft

Indigenous Dayak peoples staged a protest in front of PT Karangjuang Hijau Lestari’s office in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, demanding the release of members of their community on April 6, 2021. Image courtesy of Indigenous People's Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

  • An Indigenous Dayak man has been arrested for allegedly stealing oil palm fruit from a company’s plantation in Indonesia’s North Kalimantan province.
  • The company is embroiled in a long-running conflict with five Dayak communities in the area as its concession overlaps with their ancestral lands.
  • The arrest has triggered fear among the communities of further arrests if they keep trying to assert their land rights.

JAKARTA — On March 10, Suande, a member of the Dayak Indigenous community in Indonesian Borneo, said goodbye to his family before leaving his village for the police station in the nearby district of Nunukan.

He had been called in for questioning due to a report filed by palm oil company PT Karangjuang Hijau Lestari (KHL), a subsidiary of FAP Agri, owned by Indonesia’s billionaire Fangiono family. KHL had accused 17 villagers of stealing palm fruit from its plantation, and while Suande wasn’t one of them, he was employed as a security guard at the plantation and police wanted to talk to him.

They did more than that. Since leaving his house that day, Suande has languished in jail, taken into custody immediately after being questioned by the police.

“[His family] hasn’t been able to visit him because of COVID-19,” Djayu Sukma Ifantara, a project officer at the NGO Sustainable Forestry People’s Foundation (YMKL), told Mongabay.

FAP Agri said Suande was detained because he had been caught red-handedly harvesting palm fruit from the KHL plantation. It said Suande had admitted to the crime and to doing it several times.

“In this matter, the company has filed a report to the police and [we will] wait and respect the ongoing legal process,” FAP Agri told Mongabay.

The sudden arrest left Suande’s family and neighbors clueless as to his whereabouts; the police didn’t notify them, Djayu said.

“We were looking for information because on March 10 he didn’t come home,” he said. “Finally, on Monday, March 15, we managed to find the investigator [at the police office] and we found out that Suande had been detained, and thus we couldn’t meet him.”

Suande’s family only found out later, when activists contacted them to relay what they’d learned. Since then, his wife has had to move back to her parents’ home in another village; the family relies on Suande’s income, but with him in jail, there’s no money to eat, Djayu said.

Djayu was able to meet Suande on March 18, but only by tagging along with the lawyer representing Suande.

“When we met him, he looked empty in the eyes,” Djayu said. “He was very distressed. Maybe because we never met before, so he was wondering who we are and what our intentions are. It wasn’t until we talked for 30 minutes and explained that we would represent him in his case that Suande became more relaxed.”

He said Suande initially didn’t want to be questioned by the police, but that he was compelled to go after KHL threatened to fire him if he didn’t.

“Suande already chose to resign from the company, and then the company told Suande, ‘This is going to be the last time you’re helping the company. Just go to the police. We won’t do anything to you,’” Djayu said.

Concession maps detailing the various company interests across Nunukan district.


Djayu said there were irregularities in Suande’s arrest, such as the lack of a pretrial hearing that usually precedes a detention. This points to an attempt to deflect focus from the communities’ efforts to fight for their land rights against KHL, Djayu said.

“The problem is actually a civil one about lands,” he said. “But the company tries to divert attention away [from the land conflict].”

KHL’s concession overlaps onto the ancestral lands of five Dayak Agabag communities, including a church and an old cemetery, in Nunukan. Its police report alleging palm theft marked the latest development in a long-running land conflict with the five communities. The latter allege that company officials coerced village representatives into signing over large parts of their ancestral lands for the plantation.

In January, FAP Agri’s ultimate owner was revealed to be Wirastuty Fangiono, who is also a controlling shareholder of the First Resources palm oil conglomerate, which is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Companies that are members of the RSPO are supposed to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of local communities where it operates.

FAP Agri denied that KHL had failed to obtain free, prior and informed consent from the five Dayak communities. It said the company had also compensated the communities for their lands.

Djayu said it’s true the chiefs of the five Dayak communities had signed an agreement with KHL in 2003 for the company to operate on their lands.

“But the company explained to these five village chiefs that it’ll use the lands for 25 years and will return them [after that], and so the lands will remain ancestral lands,” he said. “Hearing that, the five village chiefs signed.”

Djayu says there’s an indication KHL is now using the legal case to force the Indigenous communities to relinquish any claims to their lands.

“When the 17 villagers were charged, a mediation was held,” he said. “And then the company handed over letters to the villagers for them to sign, which said that they admitted wrongdoing. The villagers didn’t want [to sign] because they thought if they admitted to wrongdoing, it would mean they were also admitting that their lands were not theirs.”

FAP Agri denied that the criminal case against Suande and the 17 other villagers was a form of “criminalization.”

“The preliminary evidence submitted by the company is more than enough to suspect that this case is a pure crime,” it said.

But activists and community members say they fear more arrests in the same vein.

“The villagers are scared and feel like they have no choice,” Djayu said. “They want their lands back, but the arrest of Suande puts mental pressure on them and they don’t know what to do.”

With Suande’s arrest, it seems like there’s no conflict resolution in sight, Djayu said. But there’s still hope, he said.

“Suande told me that he’ll keep fighting for his land,” Djayu said, “he’ll face the full legal process because it’s his land.”


Banner image: Indigenous Dayak peoples staged a protest in front of PT Karangjuang Hijau Lestari’s office in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, demanding the release of members of their community on April 6, 2021. Image courtesy of Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). 


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