- Mongabay, The Gecko Project and BBC News recently published a joint investigation which found that many Indonesian smallholders have lost their cut of the country’s palm oil boom.
- In this article, Tom Walker, head of research at The Gecko Project, explains how our team built a database of public reports to shed light on the issue.
- The database enabled us to target field reporting, identify trends and connect plantation companies to major consumer goods firms.
- This article sets out how we developed the database, how we used it, what it includes, and its limitations. The data can be downloaded at the bottom of this article.
In Sumatra, villagers occupied an oil palm plantation and set tires on fire; in the Bangka-Belitung Islands, they filled the local parliament building demanding action; in Borneo, paramilitary police were deployed to control the protests.
Each of these incidents appeared in local media reports in Indonesia in the past few years and told what was becoming, to anyone paying attention, an increasingly familiar story.
Since the 1970s, as corporate-run palm oil plantations spread across Indonesia, companies promised to share them with local villagers, in plots known as “plasma.” Initially, they made these commitments to secure access to land and subsidized government financing; from 2007, it was a legal obligation to share a fifth of any new plantation with villagers.
During our field reporting in Indonesia’s palm oil heartlands, we repeatedly encountered allegations that companies were failing to deliver. Local media reports from across the Southeast Asian country told a similar story, with a steady stream of appeals to government, protests, direct action and sometimes even violence, due to simmering conflicts over plasma.
When we began to investigate this in earnest, one of the key questions we sought to answer was just how widespread this problem was. It soon became clear that government monitoring was patchy and unreliable. Government agencies themselves openly acknowledged the flaws in their data. Most palm oil producers declined to share data that would enable us to interrogate their claims that they were complying with the law.
As it became apparent that there was no definitive, reliable data set, the potential utility of the local media reports grew into sharper relief. We began to compile them into a database, comprising every public report we could find of a plasma-related dispute. As well as local news stories, the database incorporated reports by credible nonprofits, government agencies and national publications.
To allow us to analyze how trends in conflicts over plasma were shifting over time, we included allegations made between January 2012 and May 2022, when the results of our investigation were first published. We excluded any cases where the nature of the allegation was unclear; the identity of the company facing the allegation was unclear; there was evidence the problem had been resolved; or we felt the article was of insufficient quality to merit inclusion. The data set ultimately expanded to cases involving more than 200 individual companies.
While we eventually sent reporters to examine 27 of the cases in greater depth, it was beyond the scope of our investigation to verify all of the allegations in the database. The data complemented, rather than replaced, the shoe-leather reporting that formed the foundation of our investigation.
Coding the cases by date, location, the company involved and various other typologies gave us insights into broader trends. We could see where allegations were occurring; where cases were escalating into protests; and which corporations were facing particularly high numbers of allegations.
Using the data from public reports to generate insights
The database helped us to identify two main categories of allegation that were being leveled at companies. First, that companies had allegedly promised plasma, or were legally required to provide it, but had never done so. Second, that the plasma did exist, but communities were receiving inadequate profits from it. We also used the data set to target our field reporting, conduct additional analysis and present our findings visually.
By categorizing and analyzing the alleged problems, our reporting team, including BBC News, The Gecko Project and Mongabay, produced graphics setting out the scale of the problem across Indonesia. The graphic below lists (in order) allegations that companies were failing to provide plasma (137 cases); the number of cases in which a street protest had occurred (111 cases); and allegations that communities were receiving inadequate payments from plasma (55 cases). We identified where and when people had staged a demonstration or taken direct action against companies to map these incidents out across Indonesia and over time. And we cross-referenced cases in our database against data published by consumer goods firms on the source of their palm oil, to identify the number of their suppliers that were implicated in plasma conflicts.
The database has limitations. It includes allegations that have not been independently substantiated. As it seeks to incorporate allegations made over a period of multiple years, it may include conflicts that have since been resolved. On the other hand, it likely substantially underestimates the true number of conflicts over plasma, as it only captures those that have caught the attention of reporters, researchers or government agencies.
Nonetheless, it provided valuable insights into broader trends for our investigation, and can also serve as a starting point for further investigation, research and action by others.
View the data
Browse the data below or download it here.
Sharing the data
The complete data set is available here. We are releasing the dataset under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC license.
Banner image: Villagers working in the oil palm plantations collecting the harvest. Image by Sawit Watch.