- In April, three farmers from Kinjil village in Central Kalimantan were arrested on suspicion of oil palm theft from land controlled by a plantation firm following a land dispute.
- The farmers’ case has been taken up by a coalition of civil society groups, and a complaint has been lodged with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
- Several complaints have been launched against companies associated with Bumitama Agri Ltd., a Singapore-based plantation firm tied to Indonesia’s Harita Group.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Kinjil Three languished in a jail cell an island away as demonstrators arrived outside a beige Jakarta office block and began distributing thousands of coins on the street.
“I came from Central Kalimantan to meet the BGA leadership,” said Gusti Samudera, who traveled to Jakarta for the demonstration, referring to a plantation company in Central Kalimantan province. “We demand the release of Aleng, Suwadi and Maju, who are accused of stealing palm fruit from their own land.”
In April, police and security officers from PT Bumitama Gunajaya Abadi (BGA) arrested Aleng Sugianto, 63, Suwadi, 40, and Maju 63, three farmers from Kinjil, a village in the West Kotawaringin district of Central Kalimantan province.
The trio stand accused of stealing oil palm fruit worth around 2.9 million rupiah ($190), according to civil society groups. The three farmers now face a possible seven-year prison sentence. They’ve already spent two months behind bars on remand, unable to provide for their families.
Following the arrests, local residents and civil society groups swiftly formed a campaign group to protest the farmers’ detention. Outraged by what they perceived to be a heavy-handed approach by law enforcement, members of the Justice for Kinjil Farmers Coalition decided to collect coins in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, to make their provocative statement.
“Maybe BGA was short on money seeing as the loss of 2.9 million rupiah put our colleagues in jail,” said Uli Artha Siagian, forestry campaign lead for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), a prominent national pressure group.
“So, we are here to give these coins to help BGA.”
The village of Kinjil comprises 100 or so homes built on a roadside junction surrounded by oil palm fields. From the village it takes almost two hours to drive to Pangkalanbun, the West Kotawaringin district seat.
At the time of writing the farmers remained in the custody of the district police in Pangkalanbun, with the first court hearing scheduled for July 11.
The case originated from attempts to form a “plasma” partnership forged in 2005 between BGA and the Kinjil farmers. Legally enacted in 2007 and widely practiced for decades before that, the scheme requires oil palm plantation companies to provide local communities with portions of their concession to cultivate oil palms in exchange for a portion of the profits. Neighboring farmers with their own land outside the plantation’s boundaries can also partake in the profit sharing.
The plasma program has helped raise rural communities out of poverty across Indonesia, but accounts of companies short-changing or denying local people their full rights are common. A joint investigation by Mongabay, BBC News and The Gecko Project in 2022 found Indonesian communities were likely missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in lost profits annually.
According to Walhi’s account, the agreement in Kinjil initially stipulated equal profit sharing between the company and the community. Aleng, whose land fell outside BGA’s concession, agreed to include his 8.3 hectares (20.5 acres) in the scheme, with the understanding that he would receive the profit from half of BGA’s palm fruit harvested on his land. However, after only a year, Aleng and other farmers complained of a discrepancy after the company awarded them an amount equivalent to just 0.3 hectares (0.7 acres).
In protest, the three farmers sought to withdraw their respective lands from the agreement, and pursued various avenues for resolution, which included a complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which certifies companies’ palm oil as sustainably produced.
In 2020, the RSPO determined that the dispute lay beyond its jurisdiction, as the land fell outside the company’s concession. The Kinjil village government then instructed that the land be returned to the original owners. Aleng took back control of his 8.3 hectares. He was arrested while tending to that plantation area in April.
Barely 24 hours after the arrest, the men were formally charged with theft. Civil society groups say the swift development of the case suggests authorities are intent on prosecuting the men.
“This is a strong indication of criminalization,” said Bayu Herinata, from Walhi’s Central Kalimantan office.
Bayu said the company had declined to engage with civil society groups and that attempts at mediation had failed prior to the Jakarta demonstration.
“We have taken action regarding the company and the police,” Bayu said. “With the company, we asked them to withdraw the complaint, and the police we asked to settle the case out of court.”
The May demonstration accompanied by bags of loose change wasn’t the first time environmental and civic rights organizations have raised complaints about this group of companies.
Bumitama Gunajaya Abadi is one of more than a dozen subsidiaries of the Bumitama Agri Ltd. group, a plantation conglomerate with 187,628 hectares (463,639 acres) under management feeding 15 palm oil mills. The group operates plantations solely in Indonesia, but is headquartered in Singapore. The Singapore entity, in turn, is part of Indonesia’s Harita Group, a family-owned natural resources conglomerate founded by Chinese émigré Lim Tju King a century ago.
Civil society groups have made several complaints to the RSPO against Bumitama Agri’s subsidiaries over more than a decade.
In 2013, the Centre for Orangutan Protection, a conservation NGO, lodged a formal complaint that a company controlled by Bumitama Agri had cleared more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of high-conservation-value forest.
In a subsequent correspondence with the RSPO, Bumitama said the company it controlled that had cleared the forest was not itself a member of the RSPO. In response, the RSPO’s complaints panel said it would review the group’s membership unless the RSPO membership was transferred to the name of the parent company.
“The Panel is concerned that members of the public will not be able to distinguish between an RSPO member and a non-member within the Bumitama Group,” the complaints panel wrote.
In 2015, Sawit Watch, a nonprofit focusing on palm oil, lodged a complaint against BGA, alleging the company had appropriated land in Central Kalimantan without adequately compensating the community. As part of this land conflict, a former BGA employee who later led a cooperative of farmers was arrested and jailed for six months.
In response to that complaint, BGA said that “none of the claims is substantiated,” and that Sawit Watch’s allegations of intimidation were “bordering with defamation against both the company and the [police] representatives.”
On April 13, the RSPO received a complaint concerning the Kinjil farmers’ arrest. The premise of the complaint was twofold:
“The Respondent is alleged to have conducted land clearing outside of the boundaries of their [permit] into the affected individuals’ land for the purpose of the development of a palm oil plantation,” according to the RSPO website.
“The Respondent is alleged to have filed a police report against the affected individuals which led to them obtaining the status as suspects by the police force, as a result of the individuals protesting against the Respondent’s alleged land clearing activities,” the online record showed.
The RSPO was reviewing the complaint at the time of writing.
Across the road from the demonstration, people filed past a Padang restaurant chain and a row of shophouses into Blok M Plaza, a colorful early ’90s mall. Outside the Bumitama Gunajaya Agro office building, the demonstrators spread coins over the street totaling 3,109,300 rupiah ($205), a few dollars more than the alleged loss suffered by the company.
Security guards and staff initially watched the spectacle impassively from inside the building. But the atmosphere later turned more caustic.
Adam Kurniawan, a senior Walhi campaigner, became embroiled in an argument with Johan Sukardi, an executive at the company, as BGA attempted to disrupt the protest and photographed demonstrators.
Uli, Walhi’s forestry lead, called on the police officers monitoring the demonstration to uphold the protesters’ right to be there.
“It’s a form of repression,” Uli said. “They don’t have the good will to accept and listen to the voice of the community.”
BGA executive Johan said the company would not comment further on the case against the three farmers.
“No, the legal process is already underway,” he said.
The campaign to free the three farmers includes several prominent civil society organizations — including Walhi, Greenpeace, Pantau Gambut, Pilnet, Progress, Save Our Borneo, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation and Sawit Watch — in addition to student groups from Pangkalanbun and Palangkaraya, the Central Kalimantan provincial capital.
“We will support Pak Aleng to the end of the road,” Gusti, who came from Central Kalimantan hoping to speak with someone from the company, told Mongabay Indonesia.” If they insist on going to court, we will have a war in court.”
Banner image: Protest action in front of the PT BGA office demanding the release of the criminalized farmers. Image by Richaldo Hariandja for Mongabay Indonesia.