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In Indonesia, a Company Intimidates, Evicts and Plants Oil Palm Without Permits

A farmer in Maroangin shows where the company planted oil palms on his rice fields. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.
  • A state-owned plantation company, PTPN XIV, is evicting farmers to make room for an oil palm estate on the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
  • In 1973, the company got a permit to raise cattle and farm tapioca on the now-disputed land, but it expired in 2003. After a long hiatus, the company has returned to claim the land. It says the government has promised to give it permits in the future, but has started operations anyway even as local communities resist.
  • The case is one of thousands of land disputes simmering across Indonesia, as President Joko Widodo attempts to carry out an ambitious land reform program.
  • The president has also ordered a freeze on the issuance of new oil palm plantation permits, but the level of enforcement remains to be seen.

MAROANGIN, Indonesia — One day in March last year, Rahim was shocked and furious to find an excavator rolling through his rice field, turning the bright green grains into piles of mud. The 51-year-old farmer took photos of the incursion and demanded to know why his family’s livelihood was being uprooted.

Rahim had been farming the land for 15 years, but the workers on the scene said he was trespassing on land that belonged to a company. No company held a license to operate there, much less evict residents, but Rahim didn’t know that. Now he was being told that rows of oil palm trees would be planted where his rice was growing.

“When I can’t farm rice, how is my family supposed to eat?” Rahim said at his home in Maroangin, a village on the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The father of four recalled having cried as he watched the rice, almost ready to harvest, disappear before him. A harvest that size could have supported his family for months. Many of his neighbors also reported having their farms and pastures taken over by the company, state-owned PT Perkebunan Nusantara (PTPN) XIV.

Like countless other farmers across Indonesia, Rahim doesn’t have a deed to the land he says his family has occupied for generations. That leaves him with scant legal defense to claims laid on it by the state or private companies.

Read moreIn Indonesia, a Company Intimidates, Evicts and Plants Oil Palm Without Permits

Environmental Defenders Fear Backlash as Defendant Sues Expert Over Testimony

Basuki Wasis (third from left, holding a mic), an environmental expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), speaks during a press conference at the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI)’s office in Jakarta. Photo courtesy of YLBHI.

 

  • Basuki Wasis, an environmental expert whose testimony helped convict a provincial governor of abuse of power, now faces a lawsuit brought by the latter for alleged inaccuracies in his calculations of environmental damage.
  • The lawsuit against Basuki is similar to one he faced last year from a palm oil company that was fined for setting fires on its concession. The earlier lawsuit was dropped, but the company now appears to be targeting another expert witness who testified against it.
  • The litigation has sparked concerns among environmental experts and activists alike, who fear it will have a silencing effect and allow environmental crimes to go unpunished.
  • They also worry that without financial assessments of damages caused to the environment, prosecutors trying corruption cases in the natural resources sector will not be able to push for longer prison sentences and heavier fines.

 

JAKARTA — Environmental experts and activists are closely watching a lawsuit filed against an academic whose testimony helped convict a governor on corruption charges, in a case many fear could set a worrying precedent.

Basuki Wasis, an expert on environmental degradation from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), has testified in more than 200 cases involving environmental crimes such as forest fires and pollution.

On Feb. 14 this year, he testified as a prosecution witness against Nur Alam, the suspended governor of Southeast Sulawesi, who was charged with abuse of power in the issuance of mining licenses. Basuki told the court that the illegal mining activities by one of the companies that received a permit from Alam had led to deforestation and resulted in 2.7 trillion rupiah ($196 million) in combined ecological losses, environmental economic losses, and the cost of repairing the damage.

On March 12, Alam’s lawyers filed a lawsuit against Basuki, questioning the accuracy of his calculations and his credibility. (Alam was convicted on March 28; he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay fines and damages totaling 3.7 billion rupiah, or $268,000.)

Read moreEnvironmental Defenders Fear Backlash as Defendant Sues Expert Over Testimony

Indonesia’s Plantation Lobby Challenges Environmental Law

Fire set for peatland clearing on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra in July 2015. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

 

JAKARTA — Palm oil and paper lobby groups have asked Indonesia’s highest court to strike down rules holding plantation firms strictly liable for fires that occur on their land.

The groups have also asked the Constitutional Court to eliminate a regulation letting small farmers practice slash-and-burn techniques, the cheapest land-clearing method and a mainstay of indigenous cultures in the Muslim-majority archipelago nation.

The judicial review, filed last month by the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) and the Indonesian Association of Forestry Concessionaires (APHI), has prompted a backlash from critics who say it threatens the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights.

It comes amid a larger debate over who bears responsibility for the devastating fires that burn annually across Indonesia’s vast peat swamp zones, which have been widely drained and dried by oil palm and timber growers — and rendered highly flammable. The great fires of 2015 burned an area the size of Vermont, blanketed Southeast Asia in haze and sickened half a million people.

Read moreIndonesia’s Plantation Lobby Challenges Environmental Law