Indonesia’s indigenous people continue to lose their land and livelihoods to palm oil plantations, despite a string of laws meant to protect them, a rights group said.
Poor government oversight and a failure by palm oil companies to uphold human rights have left indigenous communities devastated in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces, the Human Rights Watch report said.
Various laws require companies seeking to develop palm oil plantations to consult with local communities at every step of the process to obtain government permits. But HRW said it found no evidence that communities were properly consulted until after the forests were significantly destroyed.
Community members describe in the report how they have become homeless, some living in plastic tents, and without the forests for food or livelihood support. They say they have been reduced to begging on the highway or stealing palm oil fruits from plantation areas to sell and make money.
“The poverty, hunger, and loss of identity experienced by indigenous people in exchange for oil palm and the consumer goods it produces is a human rights tragedy,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, author of the report, based on field research and interviews with more than 100 people.
Palm oil is used in a vast number of products globally, ranging from soap to cookie dough.
Indonesia lost 24 million hectares of forest cover — an area almost the size of the United Kingdom — between 2001 and 2017, according to HRW. Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, has about 14 million hectares of land planted with the fruit.
The two companies named by HRW in the report have not commented.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed a moratorium on new palm oil plantations, in the wake of international concern over deforestation and rights abuses.
The president has also pledged to return millions of hectares of land to indigenous people following a landmark court ruling in 2013 to lift state control of customary forests.
But conflicting claims and a lack of records have slowed implementation, according to experts. Forest fires in recent weeks in Sumatra and Kalimantan, caused by famers and companies burning to clear land, has highlighted the problem. The fires have sent toxic smog over Southeast Asia.
Half of the world’s land is held communally by indigenous peoples and other rural communities, some 2.5 billion people in all. However, these groups only legally own about 10 percent of the world’s land, according to U.S.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.