- BBC News recently aired a documentary about Indonesia’s palm oil smallholdings program, produced as part of a joint investigation undertaken with Mongabay and The Gecko Project.
One day in 2017, as a truck loaded with oil palm fruit drove down the main road in his village on the island of Borneo, Rita Dihales decided he’d had enough.
He intercepted the truck, insisting that the company whose fruit it carried had failed to share the spoils of its plantation with the local community as required by a government program meant to cut villagers in on Indonesia’s palm oil boom.
For his actions, he was arrested on charges of confiscation and misconduct and imprisoned for several months.
“Communities give up their land, but only companies profit,” Rita said.
Rita is one of hundreds of Indonesian villagers to be imprisoned in connection with disputes involving palm oil firms accused of failing to meet their commitments under the nation’s “plasma” program, which requires companies to share a portion of their plantations with villagers.
His story was featured in a 30-minute documentary published last week by BBC News Indonesia. The film was produced as part of a joint investigation by Mongabay, The Gecko Project and the BBC into the plasma program.
Beginning in the 1980s, Indonesian palm oil companies often promised to provide smallholdings to rural communities as a means of gaining local support and accessing state financing. The practice became law in 2007, with Indonesia requiring companies to share 20% of every new plantation with villagers.
But our investigation, based on more than two years of reporting across the archipelago country, estimates that palm oil firms have failed to provide hundreds of thousands of legally required hectares of plasma, potentially costing communities hundreds of millions of dollars every year in lost profits.
“For many [communities], plasma is their only hope to earn a living,” Sri Palupi, a researcher at the Ecosoc Institute, an Indonesian civil society group, told us.
The documentary begins in Sumatra, where the Suku Anak Dalam tribe gave up its land in the expectation of receiving its own part of an oil palm plantation. They have been waiting in vain for more than two decades. Many of them now live in poverty in ramshackle huts and scrape together a living hunting for fruitlets that fall to the ground as oil palm fruits are harvested.
“We were cast out by the company,” tribal leader Mat Yadi says. “We have to live like this, constantly on the move.”
In Borneo, Rita Dihales ended up suing the company in his village over its alleged violation of an agreement obligating it to share profits as part of a plasma arrangement, eventually earning a victory in the Supreme Court.
“I gave up the land, and then I got it back,” Rita said. “So my children and grandchildren will not inherit the trouble that I have gone through.”
Watch the film below, with English subtitles, and read the article we published alongside it, “The promise was a lie’: How Indonesian villagers lost their cut of the palm oil boom”.
Banner: Suku Anak Dalam members, from right, Mat Yadi, 24, Katap, 58, and Rendi, 17, pose for a picture in an oil palm plantation during a hunting expedition. Image by Nopri Ismi.
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