Arrests and displacement rock villages in palm oil landgrab in Bengkulu, Indonesia

Arrests and displacement rock villages in palm oil landgrab in Bengkulu, Indonesia

In April of this year, I visited a pair of villages in Bengkulu, Indonesia, where the Indonesian palm oil company PT Sendabi Indah Lestari (PT SIL) — a company that allegedly supplies palm oil to Wilmar International — was engaged in ongoing violence to dispossess the villagers of their land. Now, the landgrab has taken a dramatic turn.

On September 12, two farmers in Seluma district, Bengkulu province were arrested for harvesting palm oil fruit from trees they own, but which the company claims is within its concession.

The head of the local farmers’ forum in Lunjuk Village shows police tape around an oil palm tree, claiming it as SIL company property.

When villagers protested, the local police released the farmers. But the conflict escalated on September 24, when, according to Walhi/Friends of the Earth Indonesia, PT SIL forcefully displaced several families from their homes in the villages of Lunjuk and Minggir Sari. In protest, community members seized some of the company’s heavy equipment. As the conflict escalated, the police arrived in heavy numbers to occupy the villages. Reports are unclear as to whether the police occupation continues.

This is the latest violence in an ongoing saga with the company, which has reportedly been operating illegally since 2012, when PT SIL’s concession permit expired. According to villagers and the local farmer’s forum, the company has no ownership claim over the land, but has been engaged in a land grab for several years, through intimidation and open attacks on the indigenous communities in the region.

Oil palm tree in fruit
Oil palm tree in fruit

Locals say that PT SIL has already displaced numerous families in the district and destroyed their houses. In an interview I conducted in April, 2014, Ruslan Hadi, the mayor of Minggir Sari, a small hamlet that now finds itself in the middle of what PT SIL claims is its palm oil concession, said “There used to be 115 families among our residents. Due to the presence of SIL Company, which intimidates and frightens people with the police and their guards, we have lost many residents, and we live in fear.”

In 2013, backed by the police from the notorious Mobile Brigades, or BRIMOB, PT SIL dug a deep canal through the community’s rice fields, draining the fields and destroying the community’s crops. The police have repeatedly arrested community members on a variety of spurious charges. In the most recent incident on September 12, while the villagers were released, they are now required report to the police twice a week, though there are no charges against them — a clear intimidation tactic.

According to Forum Petani Bersatu, the farmers union active in the area, PT SIL supplies the bulk of its palm oil to Wilmar International. If this is the case, the company’s actions are not only in violation of national law and human rights standards, but must be addressed by Wilmar under its sustainability policy as well. Friends of the Earth has contacted Wilmar to inquire into its business relations with PT SIL. but as of this posting, we have received no reply.

In addition to likely supplying Wilmar, PT SIL’s parent company, PT Gurita Lintas Samudera, has another business relationship with the company: Soenarto Sangat, the president director of PT Gurita Lintas Samudra, is also a member of the commissioners of PT Jawamanis Rafinasi, a subsidiary and affiliate of Wilmar International.

Villagers of Minggir Sari
Residents of Minggir Sari Village protesting the landgrab by PT SIL

While research has yet to confirm how much palm oil PT SIL may supply to Wilmar or other global traders, Osian Pak Pahan, head of the farmer’s union said in an interview in April, “SIL is selling to Wilmar, which makes Wilmar responsible for the company’s illegal activities. Sadly, the government will always side with the company, and SIL knows the government will never resolve the conflict. The company has been here 4 years, and we want them to go.”

PT SIL’s palm oil mill in Bengkulu is also a registered project with the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism — a much criticized effort to offset northern industrial emissions by financing “clean development” projects in the global south. 

Stay tuned for updates and for an urgent action to protect the villagers of Seluma District from PT SIL’s landgrab.

Image credit: Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth

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