A court in Indonesia has sentenced two indigenous farmers to eight and 10 months in prison respectively for stealing oil palm fruit from a plantation company that is itself accused of stealing their land.
On June 15, the Sampit district court in East Kotawaringin, in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan, ruled Dilik Bin Asap from Penyang village guilty of harvesting palm fruit on land claimed by the villagers but cultivated by PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (PT HMBP), an affiliate of the BEST Group. The court also found James Watt, a prominent land rights activist, guilty of ordering Dilik and other farmers to harvest the fruits.
As a result, the panel of judges sentenced Dilik to eight months in prison and James to 10 months in prison.
Another farmer, Hermanus Bin Bison, was arrested by police along with Dilik, and he died in custody, reportedly after being refused proper treatment for his ill health.
James said he wasn’t guilty and would appeal the verdict.
“But this fight isn’t my own,” he said. “It’s the Penyang villagers’, so I ask their approval first to determine the next step.”
Bama Adiyanto, a lawyer representing James and Dilik, said the judges had ignored the fact that ownership of the harvested land was still under dispute, and therefore the company didn’t have a case that the farmers had stolen from its property.
According to the Penyang villagers, PT HMBP has cleared forests and cultivated oil palms on land outside its concession, encroaching onto the community’s land. They have lodged complaints with multiple authorities, including the East Kotawaringin district government and council, and the national human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM.
In 2010, the district chief officially declared that PT HMBP was operating outside its concession and ordered it to cede the disputed land back to the community. The following year, the district council determined that the company had illegally planted on 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres), and echoed the district chief’s call to hand the land back to the villagers. Komnas HAM also called on the company to follow through.
But it wasn’t until October 2019 that PT HMBP acted. Even then, it said it would only relinquish control of a fraction of the disputed land — 117 hectares, or 290 acres — either completely or partially, offering to manage it in collaboration with the villagers.
Bama said lawyers for the farmers had presented evidence in court that the harvested land wasn’t part of PT HMBP’s concession.
“The location is clearly outside the company’s [plantation area] and is owned by the locals,” he said. “In fact, it’s the company that’s in the wrong for cultivating on the location.”
Dimas Novian Hartono, the Central Kalimantan director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said one of the key pieces of evidence corroborating the villagers’ claim was a copy of the outcome of an investigation by the government’s land agency, BPN, conducted in 2012.
But the judges said the evidence presented couldn’t be used in the trial because the charges against Dilik and James were criminal in nature, and not a civil lawsuit, and thus the question of the ownership of the land wasn’t at issue in this case.
“So [the judges] didn’t look deeper into the root of the case,” Dimas told Mongabay.
Also during the trial, neither PT HMBP nor the prosecutors could present evidence to back up the company’s claim that it owns the permit to the harvested land.
Kurnia Warwan, an agrarian law expert at Andalas University, said this fact alone should have been enough to compel the judges to acquit James and Dilik.
“That [verdict] is very surprising,” he said. “From the beginning, this theft case has already failed to meet the element [of a crime].”
Kurnia added that the plantation law used by the prosecutors in charging James and Dilik could also be wielded against PT HMBP, given that it expressly prohibits companies from cultivating on locals’ lands without their consent.
James and Dilik, Kurnia said, were therefore victims of criminalization.
Walhi also highlighted irregularities in the case. Among them: the company filed a police report against Dilik and Hermanus at 7 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 17. Yet they only started harvesting the palm fruit — their alleged crime — at 9 a.m.
James was arrested on March 7 by the Central Kalimantan police in Jakarta, where he had gone to report the earlier arrests of Dilik and Hermanus to Komnas HAM and the witness protection program, or LPSK.
Walhi said the three farmers were charged shortly after the arrests.
“All three were even interrogated [by the police] without being accompanied by legal advisers and while they were exhausted after the trip to the Central Kalimantan police headquarters,” Walhi said.
Bama said he also had difficulties meeting the three farmers after the police detained them.
“We couldn’t meet them immediately [after the arrest],” he said. “The local police always had reasons to prevent us from meeting [them] and hearing their version of the story.”
In response to the verdict, PT HMBP legal manager Wahyu Bimo said the harvested land is part of the area that the company had offered to managed in collaboration with the villagers.
“That land is planned to be developed into a plasma plantation,” he said, using the local term for smallholder plots that supply larger plantations. “The cooperative is already established. Those who join the opposition [against the company], including those who harvested [the palm fruit], are not a part of the cooperative for the plasma [program].”
Bama said he and the other lawyers for James and Dilik would file an appeal against the criminal conviction of the farmers, as well as a civil lawsuit against PT HMBP over ownership of the land. Dimas from Walhi, who is part of the legal team, said they planned to get the buy-in of all the villagers in order to mount a solid lawsuit.