High court sides with Indigenous communities in battle over controversial Malaysian palm oil giant’s plan to develop large areas of ancestral territory and pristine forest

The National Court of Papua New Guinea has declared that two large land development leases claimed by Malaysia-based Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK) in the Collingwood Bay region of Papua New Guinea are null and void and has ordered the State to cancel the title deeds. As a result, KLK will not be able to develop the 38,350 hectares of land subject to the leases, which is part of the customary territory of nine Indigenous tribes who rely on the natural landscape of the region as the basis for their economy and subsistence livelihoods. Most of the land in question is pristine tropical forest containing extremely high levels of biological diversity.

On April 2nd, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) profiled this case in a report titled "Conflict Palm Oil in Practice: Exposing KLK's Role in Rainforest Destruction, Land Grabbing and Child Labor." The report details four cases of Conflict Palm Oil production throughout KLK’s global operations. 

“The people of Collingwood Bay have spoken clearly through the voices of our chiefs that we are against large scale palm oil development on our lands,” said Lester Seri, one of the plaintiffs on the case and a landowner in Collingwood Bay. “The chiefs of our nine tribes have spoken. Tens of thousands of our international allies have spoken. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has spoken. And now the National Court of PNG has agreed: these permits are illegitimate. KLK must leave Collingwood Bay immediately and not return.”

The issue garnered international attention when Collingwood Bay landowners asked Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and other allies to support their formal complaint to the RSPO against KLK’s activities on their land. In January the RSPO issued a decision ordering KLK to cease all activity until the legality of leases was determined by the courts and to demonstrate proof that the Free Prior and Informed Consent process carried out involved the whole of the affected community, rather than small pockets of it.

KLK’s disregard for communities’ right to withhold their Free, Prior and Informed Consent to developments on their lands is not confined to Papua New Guinea. Communities in Liberia are currently fighting expansion onto their customary lands by KLK’s newly acquired subsidiary Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO), which has also been subject to a formal RSPO complaint. In March Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told the communities that the government will support them in protecting their land from further expansion by EPO. But despite the President’s support, in the past two weeks the EPO has moved forward with conducting studies of the community’s land in preparation for clearance, provoking anxiety amongst community members and escalating the risk of violent conflict.

“Equatorial Palm Oil and KLK must listen to the Jogbahn Clan and accept that their 'no' means 'no',” said Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, campaigner for the Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia. “The continuing determination of these communities is a cautionary tale for EPO, KLK, and other corporations who think they can ignore communities' rights and ownership of land."

By area, KLK is the world's fifth-largest palm oil plantation company with a land bank nearly 250,000 hectares in Indonesia and Malaysia. KLK has significant ties to the international marketplace, selling its palm oil to major global traders and brands. In the United States, KLK is a significant supplier to Cargill, which in turn sells palm oil to dozens of major consumer brand companies.

“At a time when its peers like Wilmar are adopting leadership polices that set a new benchmark for responsible palm oil production, KLK continues to show blatant disregard for human rights across its global operations,” said RAN forest campaigner Robin Averbeck. “From Liberia to Indonesia to Papua New Guinea, KLK is involved in everything from the destruction of endangered orangutan habitat to use of child labor to the violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is past time for KLK to recognize that business as usual as it has known it is no longer acceptable.”

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