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Sumatra Indigenous community displaced by Samsung palm oil unit await justice

  • The Talang Parit Indigenous community have witnessed their ability to sustain daily life become increasingly fraught since an oil palm plantation company, Inecda, began clearing their customary territory more than 25 years ago.
  • The community faces water stress and blames difficulty in finding groundwater on the canals dug by the company to drain the landscape for its oil palm trees.
  • The community has initiated a formal complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and is awaiting the findings of site visits conducted by the Geneva-based organization.

TALANG PARIT, Indonesia — For more than two decades, the residents of this Indigenous community in Riau province, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, have watched as their lakes dried up and the rainforest dwindled.

“The forest is gone,” Batin Irasan, the village’s ketua adat, or spiritual leader, told Mongabay Indonesia. “What was sacred has already been lost.”

A once-thriving ecosystem with vibrant lakes in the heart of Sumatra is now failing. More than two decades ago, excavators from PT Inecda Plantation began clear-cutting more than 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) of forest that the Talang Parit community had called home for generations. The community is part of the broader Talang Mamak Indigenous community based in this part of Sumatra, where Riau’s northern peatlands border the more central mineral soils.

The company, an arm of South Korean conglomerate Samsung, cut canals into the swampy soil to drain off enough water from the landscape to enable its oil palm trees to grow. The Talang Parit community’s main fishing grounds dried up and the water supply petered out.

Sudiman, the village chief, said he’s worried the community’s way of life is under threat. Two of the four hamlets that make up the community are experiencing water stress. One hamlet in the upland attempted to drill a ground well 30 meters (98 feet) deep, but found no drinkable water.

In the fourth hamlet, where many residents work for a state-owned plantation firm, PT Perkebunan Nusantara V, the water is an undrinkable shade of red.

Talang Parit youths on their way to install a fish trap.
Talang Parit youths on their way to install a fish trap. Image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia.

In response to these challenges, Sudiman oversaw construction of two wells in the community’s second and third hamlets in 2018.

“Hamlets II and III are the easiest to find clean water,” Sudiman said. “Wells 12-15 meters [39-49 feet] deep are sufficient to extract water suitable for consumption.”

But that work was a qualified success; residents of the first and fourth hamlets must travel by motorcycle to their neighbors simply to find water that families can drink.

Conversion of the landscape has also damaged the community’s ability to sustain cultural and spiritual traditions. Ketua adat require reliable supplies of rattan and other forest goods for ceremonial duties and weddings. Plants used in medicine and construction are also in short supply, said Marusi, the Talang Parit shaman who provides medical and other adat (spiritual) services.

“The same is true for the resin used in birth and death rituals,” Marusi said.

“The place where we stand is now broken.”

Like many here, Marusi said he fears it will soon become impossible for the community to maintain these traditional practices.

When Talang Parit residents Elni and Ijusan wed over the course of three days and three nights in a local home, many of the ceremonial items had to be procured from outside the community.

Previously, about three-quarters of the materials required for a marriage could be obtained from the forest. But when the couple tied the knot, most of the ceremonial items had to be bought at markets or brought in from neighboring communities that still had access to forest resources.

“If these items are not available then of course our customs will not work,” said Dita, who chairs the Talang Parit women’s group. “It isn’t just when you marry or die, but from the time you are born until your last breath there must be a custom.”

The Talang Parit Indigenous preparating sticky rice at a wedding.
The Talang Parit Indigenous preparating sticky rice at a wedding. Image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia

Plasma rights disputed

The land conflict here first emerged in 1997. Since then, there have been four elected heads of Indragiri Hulu district, which encompasses Talang Parit, and none have been able to resolve the issue.

As the head of a legal aid foundation in Riau province, Andi Wijaya has seen a long list of similar cases as successive governments issued permits to convert Riau’s once-pristine peatlands into plantations, mainly for palm oil, paper and pulp. Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, found in everything from laundry detergent to frozen pizza, and Riau is an industry hub.

Andi said a common theme underpins the Talang Mamak community’s bind: the area of Indragiri Hulu they consider their customary land isn’t recognized as such by the Indonesian state.

In 2018, the Indragiri Hulu district chief signed a decree establishing a new committee to oversee customary affairs, including land claims. This decree followed new rules published in 2014 by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Jakarta requiring local leaders to form Indigenous affairs committees.

But that committee has made few strides since then, according to Gilung, who chairs the district chapter of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a nationwide advocacy group based in Bogor, West Java.

Hendrizal, the high-ranking official who chairs the committee, said applications submitted by the community to review the land conflict were still being examined. Roma Doris, another official who serves on the committee, said there was no time frame for the review of the community’s application. Roma cited the coronavirus pandemic and staff changes as two reasons for the delays in handling the claim.

Batin, the ketua adat, said he’s been offered money to relent in his campaign for the Talang Parit community’s land rights recognition, but refuses to be bought off.

“I can’t be bought with money — I am still standing firm and guarding the customary territory,” he told Mongabay. “I may be poor, but I don’t want to be given money, because of my parents’ oath.”

Batin Irasan, the village’s ketua adat, or spiritual leader.
Batin Irasan, the village’s ketua adat, or spiritual leader. Image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia.

In 2019, Batin visited the AsM Law Office, a legal firm that supports rural communities, to initiate a complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multistakeholder body for the palm oil industry established in 2004 in Geneva.

The most recent update to that complaint showed that the RSPO had carried out a site visit to the Talang Parit in late March.

The summary of the complaint is threefold: that plantation firm Inecda didn’t obtain free, prior and informed consent from the community; that it failed to provide plantation land to the community (a scheme known in Indonesia as “plasma”); and that it didn’t form a grievance mechanism that the community could access.

In April 2022, three NGOs — the Rights and Resources Initiative, Land Rights Now and the International Land Coalition — published an open letter to Koh Jung-Suk, the chief executive officer of Samsung C&T Corporation.

The letter cited Samsung’s own commitment to ensuring “a harmonious organizational culture with the local community.” However, the letter noted, “Regrettably, the actual practice on the ground is far from reality in the case of PT Inecda.”

Batin has even traveled outside Indonesia, to the capital of neighboring Malaysia, to press his community’s case.

“In Kuala Lumpur, I actually felt ashamed that the Talang Parit Indigenous people’s case had reached abroad,” Batin said. “But at the same time we’ve gone decades without any justice in this country.”

Batin said the community’s goal is to press the company to meet its obligations under the plasma scheme enacted by the Indonesian government in 2007. Under the program, intended to lift rural communities out of poverty, plantation firms are legally required to allocate 20% of their agricultural land to villagers.

“I do not want the company to be kicked out,” Batin said. “We are only asking for the rights to plasma plantation.”

Some men from the Talang Parit community keep the fire going using banana leaves while the rice cooks.
Some men from the Talang Parit community keep the fire going using banana leaves while the rice cooks. Image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia

In May 2022, Mongabay published a joint investigation showing that palm oil firms had widely failed to provide plasma, depriving Indonesian villagers an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Andiko Sutan Mancayo, an attorney at AsM Law Office, said the Talang Parit conflict had dragged on for years without any breakthrough.

“The rights of the people of Talang Parit must be fulfilled by the company,” Andiko told Mongabay.

A spokesperson for PT Inecda Plantation declined to speak on the record when asked to respond to the allegations.

“Just no comment from me,” Joko Dwiyono wrote in a text message on March 28.

Batin told Mongabay that in the 1980s the community would walk down to the river to collect drinking water. Today, local health workers advise not drinking from the river at all.

The viability of basic needs and cultural heritage here remain under threat. More than 25 years after Inecda converted the land on which they live, the Talang Parit community still has nothing.

“We were never even given one tree,” Batin said. “And we were never given any compensation.”

Banner image by Suryadi/ Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on April 1, 2023.

Tensions boil in Sumatra over a palm oil promise villagers say has yet to be kept

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