The struggle to prevent land grabbing and forest destruction in Indonesia


Transnational Institute | October 2010

Elisha Kartini (from Indonesia, population 227.3 million) works for the Indonesian Peasant Union (Serikat Petani Indonesia, SPI), researching the expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the displacement of local communities and threats posed to food sovereignty.

What’s the problem?

Indonesia is a major producer of palm oil, used for biofuels and cosmetics, among other things. Global industrial demand for palm oil continues to drive the destruction of massive tracts of the Indonesian rainforest by a few huge corporations. Local communities who’ve lived on the land for generations are often forced into urban slums, or else they become low-paid labour for the large palm oil producers themselves. This also includes small-scale farmers, whose land is taken over by large corporate enterprises which are either foreign-owned or suppliers of foreign multinationals. Sometimes, small farmers are forced to switch from their own crops to producing palm oil.[1]

“The EU Commission agreed on a biofuels policy in which they explicitly said it is better to produce in tropical countries because of cheap labour and resources.”

“Then in 2006 there was a presidential decree stating that production would increase, and [the Indonesian government] would guarantee distribution.” Palm oil plantations in the country underwent a 1.3 million-hectare expansion.

“There are many conflicts with small farmers; they are indiginous, and have no official certificate for the land; the companies claim it is their land.”

SPI has documented many cases of forced expropriations. The police and military are often involved, and in the last two years 15 farmers have been shot. Other human rights violations include intimidation and wrongful imprisonment.

Around 67 percent of the land taken for palm oil plantations is controlled by just 5 companies; the three big foreign ones are Socfin Group or Socfindo (Belgian), London-Sumatra or LONSUM (formerly British, now Indonesian[2]) and Wilmar (Singapore). There are also two major Indonesian producers responsible for expropriations and forest destruction, the most famous of which is the massive conglomerate Sinar Mas[3]. About 80 percent of the palm oil produced in Indonesia is exported to Europe.

Although Indonesia has not signed a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU yet, in 2009 a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) was made. Since then, Indonesia has been flooded with zero tariff wheat and sugar exports from Europe, undercutting and threatening the livelihoods of small farmers, while wheat-based, processed noodles are promoted as part of a so-called “food diversification plan” (despite the fact that rice is the staple food in Indonesia).

What does your work involve?

“First, we want to see land redistribution – so we are campaigning nationally for agrarian reform. This is even supported in the constitution, but this has been frozen since 1965.”

SPI also works to ensure food sovereignty, as an alternative to the “market led” reforms that have increased poverty and food insecurity in the country.

As well as campaigning for policy change, SPI works at the field or village level, helping families and communities in “land reclaiming” – which involves taking back land they have been removed from. They also organize inter-farmer skill exchanges, teaching techniques of agro-ecological farming and how to become independent from industrial farming and big agribusiness. Sometimes SPI also organizes rallies to demonstrate support for their campaigns.

SPI has member organizations in 11 provinces in Indonesia, and 700,000 families are members as well. They are supported nationally and internationally by other non-governmental organizations, and are part of Via Campesina – an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.

What do you hope for EU-Asian relations?

“Our main hope is that we can stop the Indonesian EU-FTA and for the EU to revoke its biofuels policy. This year, we are working with Francoise Houtard from CETRI – who has provided research to the EU Commission on the impacts of agro-fuels expansion, and also in Brazil and Africa.”

Houtard’s latest briefing to the EU Commission is due this month. For more information, see Industrial Agrofuels: Fuel hunger and poverty (Via Campesina with a chapter by Houtard) ; Houtard (2009) Agrofuels: Big profits, ruined lives and ecological destruction; and Borras, McMichael and Scoones (2010) “The politics of biofuels, land and agrarian change: editors' introduction.”


[1] These farms are referred to as “nucleus plantations”. There are about 3 million independent small growers in Indonesia. SPI does not oppose production of palm oil by small independent farmers who only sell the fruit bunch and do not have access to the oil processing facilities.

[2] London Sumatra was founded in 1906 as a British company, but became Indonesian after shareholders sold their stake in the mid-nineties, and the company became closely connected to the family of former Indonesian dictator, Suharto.

[3] See the Greenpeace report on Sinar Mas Caught Red-Handed: Nestlé, Sinar Mas and palm oil
Original source: TNI

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