Impact Stories - Palm Oil Expansion: Ensuring Accountability

In its ongoing representation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities across the developing world, Partners of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) are raising a voice against the serious human rights abuses caused by the rapid expansion of palm oil production

  • Through 2011, RRI Partner Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) collaborated with local community organizations in South East Asia and Central Africa to forestall agribusiness developments on the lands of Indigenous Peoples without their prior consent.
  • FFP and other civil society groups successfully persuaded the World Bank to freeze all of its funding for the palm oil sector while improving strategy to ensure protection of local land rights prior to further investments.
  • In December 2011, RRI, FPP, the Indonesian NGO SawitWatch, and the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission hosted a regional conference attended by human rights organizations, academics and Indigenous Peoples representatives, calling upon governments, legislatures and investors to respect the ownership rights of all local communities.

In 2011, an independent investigation held by Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), an RRI Partner, drew global attention to the systematic eviction of local communities in Jambi, Indonesia, by PT Asiatic Persada, a subsidiary of the world’s largest palm oil trading company, Wilmar International.


During a week-long operation, local mobile police brigade (BRIMOB) contracted by PT Asiatic Persada, forcefully evicted 83 families from their homes south of the company’s oil palm concession. The police entered the communities without warning, harassed men, women and children, and used tractors to tear up their homes. Many people were injured in the process; all were left homeless.

"Everyone ran scared, trying to save themselves. None of our goods could be brought with us. Only the clothes on our bodies."
An evicted member of the Jimbatan Sungai Beruang community


Pak Mahadi of Danau Minang described the trauma, “We fled into the forest, and stayed there for three nights and three days. We lived in the forest next to the river, eating rattan shoots and fish. It was very hard for the infants and children. When we returned, our seven houses had been completely destroyed, including our property, which we had slowly accumulated over years from working as farmers.”


Underlying this incident is an unresolved land dispute between the community and PT Asiatic Persada, which has acquired a 20,000 ha. concession from the government over the customary lands of the Batin Sembilan peoples without their consent. Community members interviewed by FPP allege the company has planted its oil palm estates without paying compensation for land and other properties taken.

"Rivers run shallow and thick with mud and pollution. Fruit trees planted by the communities have been cut down. Denied the right to use the land, we cannot grow crops for subsistence."
Pak Butar, a member of the Batin Sembilan community


FPP, along with other NGOs, appealed to the complaints body of the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which has long provided financial support to Wilmar International. They urged IFC to resolve Wilmar’s land disputes with Indonesian communities. The complaints led to restitution for two communities in West Kalimantan and Riau, where Wilmar subsidiaries were persuaded to make reparations. IFC’s complaints body, CAO, is now looking into mediating a similar process in Jambi.


The findings of a CAO audit, aided with appeals from civil society groups supported by RRI, eventually persuaded the World Bank to freeze all of its funding for the palm oil sector worldwide. In the meantime, World Bank and IFC would agree on a framework and more detailed strategy designed to ensure that future investments only take place in a favorable environment where land issues are addressed prior to further investments.


The new World Bank framework complements the standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which require that member companies respect communities’ customary land rights and ensure that no developments take place on their lands without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Although cases such as PT Asiatic Persada question the effectiveness of the RSPO standard – Wilmar International is represented on RSPO’s Executive Board – FPP and local groups have been actively using RSPO redress mechanisms to try to forestall similar problems beyond Southeast Asia. For instance, RRI Partners and Collaborators successfully challenged the recent planned expansion of Malaysian firm Sime Darby’s operations in Liberia, where the company seeks to plant 220,000 ha. of oil palm. In response to appeals from FPP and local NGOs, Sime Darby agreed to halt land clearance and engage in bilateral discussions to resolve the land conflict. Back in Indonesia, NGOs were similarly able to challenge a planned expansion of PT Agrowiratama in West Kalimantan, persuading the company to relinquish 1000 ha. of land back to communities.


In December 2011, RRI partnered with FPP, the Indonesian NGO SawitWatch and the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission to convene a regional conference in Bali, attended by 58 participants from human rights institutions, academia, indigenous communities, and NGOs in Southeast Asia. The conference, which was opened by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, highlighted the challenges of ensuring the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the context of rapid agribusiness expansion, notably the palm oil sector. It concluded with the Bali Declaration on Human Rights and Agribusiness, which calls upon governments, legislatures and corporations in Southeast Asia to ensure urgent reform or reinforcement of national laws and policies for land tenure, agrarian reform, land use planning and acquisition, and to fully comply with human rights obligations, including the right of all peoples to gain livelihood benefits from their natural wealth and resources.


RRI strongly believes that the wider pattern of land conflict spreading in South East Asia, Latin America and Africa, can only be resolved by more fundamental reforms of national laws, policy and procedure which ensure respect for Indigenous Peoples and rural communities. Since tenure insecurity and limited access to justice reduce the means of redress for local peoples, it has become increasingly important today for international institutions to support them to champion their own rights, and ensure greater accountability on the part of governments and the private sector.