Better Palm Oil Debate: Defending forests against palm in Central Kalimantan

Better Palm Oil Debate: Defending forests against palm in Central Kalimantan

As the Indonesian communities of Central Kalimantan fight to protect their ancestral forests, some fear their battle may have already been lost, writes Dana MacLean.

Hundreds of indigenous Indonesian communities scattered around the lush forested island of Central Kalimantan rely on the bio-diverse peatland ecosystems for survival. They collect rattan for basket weaving, roots, fruits and fish for food, as well as leaves for medicine. But in the past two decades, communities have had to struggle against palm oil corporations to defend their ancestral forests, with growing fears that the battle may have already been lost.

Despite mobilising his community to protest, Dayak villager Abdul Muin feels that everything they have done has been in vain. Abdul Muin hails from Sei Dusun village, one of the last remaining villages that refuses to sell out to palm oil corporations.

All the surrounding villages have buckled under the pressure from both local government and corporations, who have already bought concessions to the land from provincial authorities that often fail to recognise the land’s original inhabitants. While a landmark Constitutional Court ruling in May 2013 amended the 1999 Forestry Law to acknowledge customarily owned land, it has yet to be implemented. According to activists, a community has yet to gain communal rights over a forest, despite over 8,000 registered cases of land conflicts, based on figures from the National Land Use and Planning Agency (BPA).

According to Sophie Chao, project officer with the Forest Peoples’ Program (FPP), what is most disturbing is that once a court claim has been filed by the community against the corporation, they sell off the land to a subsidiary and the community has to start the lengthy and complicated process of filing claims from scratch.

The goals of development, forest conservation, and protection of human rights often conflict, and are hard to balance. Achieving environmental conservation, economic returns and social justice all at the same time is the biggest challenge facing governments in developing countries. Indonesia’s contradictory policies and implementation are testament to this.

More than 2,500 palm oil corporations operate countrywide, and the government’s National Economic Development Plan for 2011-2025 underscores palm oil as the key industry to propel the country forward economically. Despite two national moratoriums on forest clearance in the past three years, since 2011, roughly five million more hectares of forest have been converted to palm, according to Greenpeace. All this had led to Indonesia becoming the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. This is partly attributed to the huge quantities of emissions released by drying and clearing peatland for palm.

Environmental activists and development organisations are calling for both, the recognition of indigenous land rights and land swaps. These land swaps would entail using abandoned or degraded land to farm palm oil instead of clearing primary peatland.

According to Will McFarland, climate and environment programme officer at the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI), it would be better to put plantations on already cleared land and leave primary forests untouched. However, the main challenge with implementing land swaps is the lack of solid land data in Indonesia, which makes it difficult to identify the location of degraded land.

“The main challenge with implementing land swaps is the lack of solid land data in Indonesia”

The government is currently working on the One Map Initiative in collaboration with the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). The map is expected to be released at the end of June 2014, and environmental advocates have high hopes for the map’s potential to facilitate more land swaps.

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