New report exposes challenge of land conflicts in Indonesia caused by oil palm plantations: the long road to conflict resolution

FPP| 27 October 2021

New report exposes challenge of land conflicts in Indonesia caused by oil palm plantations: the long road to conflict resolution

by Marcus Colchester


The rapid spread of oil palm plantations across Indonesia has spawned over 4,000 land conflicts, and the size of these plantations is doubling every decade. A new study, released today, details the main causes of these conflicts and exposes the limited resources rural Indonesians have to seek resolution and redress for land loss.

Read the report in English

Baca laporannya dalam bahasa indonesia

Finding ways to resolve these conflicts is vital, both for indigenous and rural communities and the companies involved. The study was designed to distil the lessons of what works - and what doesn’t - to resolve these land disputes in the palm oil sector, based on a detailed review of 150 cases in four provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan. 

‘These conflicts are an urgent problem: [they] entail hardship and economic damage for many rural Indonesians and entail operational costs and reputational damage for palm oil companies.’ 

This long-term research project was carried out by academics from Leiden and Wageninan Universities in the Netherlands and Universitas Andalas in Indonesia, in collaboration with Indonesian civil society organisations. It’s the first-ever study of its scope, in which they ‘discuss and analyze the grievances that spark conflicts, the strategies that communities and companies adopt to deal with these conflicts, as well the outcomes of these conflicts.’ 

Why are land conflicts so difficult to resolve in Indonesia?  

One of the issues with Indonesian land conflicts is what the researchers call the ‘rightlessness’ of the communities, which is the result of a largely ineffective land tenure system. Legal recognition of communities’ land rights is lacking and what protections do exist under Indonesian law are frequently not enforced on the ground.  

Meanwhile, companies secure extensive concessions from government agencies to convert this community land into oil palm plantations. Pushed out of the negotiation and with limited legal rights, the communities are unable to resist the take-over of their lands.  

‘The majority of the conflicts that we studied involved community members who complained that they lost their land without providing consent and without receiving compensation.’ 

Where communities are involved in the process of land purchase, the investigation found a pattern of deception in the tactics that companies routinely use to persuade communities to surrender their lands. These ranged from bribery, buying off village leaders, falsifying receipts and consent forms, bullying by local land brokers, to police intimidation and harassment. 

How can conflicts be resolved? 

There are four main routes for communities to seek redress;  

  1. mediation by local government,  
  2. direct negotiation,  
  3. appealing to the courts and  
  4. filing complaints with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) Complaints Panel.  

However, in more than two-thirds of conflicts, no resolution was achieved. In most of the remaining conflicts, improvements took over ten years, during which time community complainants endured harassment and intimidation. 

The study found that in 73% of cases the communities tried mediation, in 25% they tried the courts, 19% tried direct negotiation and 11% appealed to the RSPO. 

However, the legal option was rarely effective. Even where the courts ruled in favour of the communities, court decisions weren’t implemented. For example, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the judgment called for the company’s HGU (concession) to be annulled, but the land agency never cancelled the permit. 

‘Because of the… difficulty of proving land ownership, the high costs involved and the perceived corruptibility of the courts, litigation is perceived to be an unattractive option.’ 

Although 64 of the 150 cases investigated related to RSPO member companies, in only 17 cases (26%) had communities decided to use the RSPO Complaints Panel procedure, either because they were unaware of the option or because the procedure was perceived to be too complicated. While a few complaints to RSPO did result in resolution, most did not and in some cases companies just ignored the RSPO Complaints Panel’s directives. 

The researchers also found surprisingly little difference in performance between RSPO member companies and non-members: as the investigators concluded ‘this is a surprisingly small difference, given the fact that RSPO standards involve an obligation to resolve conflicts with communities’. 

The favoured route pursued by communities and supportive NGOs was to appeal to local authorities. Yet the study found that these appeals were also rarely successful as, despite apparently earnest efforts by local officials and members of the local legislatures to set up meetings, companies would regularly decline to attend. Even when these meetings did agree that violations had occurred, government rulings were ignored.  

‘A remarkable aspect of these efforts of local governments to facilitate conflict resolution is their lack of teeth: while palm oil companies regularly refuse to participate constructively in such meetings involving allegations of serious (licence) violations, local governments generally avoid taking any kind of disciplinary action’. 

What can communities do when conflict resolution doesn’t work?  

Because resolution has been so hard to secure, many of the conflicts documented by the researchers have escalated from just filing grievances and complaints. Four out of five (76%) of cases led to demonstrations, almost half (45%) led to land occupations and blockades and almost a third (29%) led to pilfering fruit from contested plantations.  

There were also multiple cases of violence, sometimes by community members but more often by security forces. As the disputes escalated, the study observed a worrying tendency of police and company management to criminalise protestors. From the 150 cases studied, the researchers recorded 798 people arrested, 243 wounded and 19 killed. 

‘Communities tend to lose the cases they bring to courts on procedural grounds, while protesting community members are frequently arrested and submitted to violence by police or security forces.’ 

What makes a conflict more likely to be resolved? 

The study compares the unsuccessful cases with the few that did achieve a whole or partial conflict resolution. The researchers conclude that good outcomes are more likely where communities are well organised, customary institutions are strong, leaders are well networked with the local administration and, to a small extent, if the companies involved are members of the RSPO.  

The report ends with detailed recommendations for the government and the RSPO and concludes that whichever route the communities pursue to resolve conflicts, it is helpful if strong NGOs provide sustained support. 

‘Our findings suggest NGO support for communities, in the form of legal aid, community organizing or mediation, could help make palm oil conflicts less intractable.’ 

Read the report in English

Baca laporannya dalam bahasa indonesia

Palm Oil Expansion and Conflict in Indonesia: an evaluation of the effectiveness of conflict resolution mechanisms 

by Ward Berenschot, Ahmad Dhiaulhaq, Afrizal, Otto Hospes, a joint publication of KITLV Leiden, Andalas University, Wageningen University, Lembaga Gemawan, Scale Up, Walhi West Sumatra, Walhi Central Kalimantan, Epistema Institute and HuMA. 


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