Customary Communities Fight Palm Oil Producers for Land Rights in Sumatra

Communities in Aceh use the High Carbon Stock Approach to map and assess their lands

This is the story of the struggles and demands of the Jambo Reuhat community, one of many communities in the Indonesian province of Aceh working to reestablish their customary rights against the overwhelming forces of global capital driving palm oil expansion into their territories. While it is a microcosm of the destruction and conflict caused by reckless palm oil development across the region, this is also a story of hope. Even in the midst of the global climate and biodiversity crises, there are real opportunities for communities to be supported to do what they do best––to manage their customary forests and defend them from deforestation and exploitation by commodity producers. The Jambo Reuhat community has recently begun mapping their territories and documenting the values of their customary forests. The results are clear. Forests that remain on their lands are high in conservation, carbon, and social values and warrant protection from further palm oil development. 

The importance of supporting Indigenous Peoples as a core strategy of international efforts to stop the climate and biodiversity crises cannot be overstated. Despite representing less than five percent of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples steward more than a quarter of Earth’s land and seas and protect roughly 80 percent of global biodiversity. Besides being morally right, it is well established that the most effective and efficient way to keep ecosystems intact and forests standing is to safeguard the land rights of the Indigenous communities whose livelihoods depend on them. As is too often the case around the world, centuries of colonialism and industrial resource extraction have displaced and disenfranchised thousands of Indigenous communities across Indonesia. 

Hard fought campaigns to achieve corporate policies against deforestation and human rights abuse, as well as government initiatives, are beginning to address systemic conflicts between local communities and agricultural producers that supply basic commodities like palm oil and wood pulp to household brands including Mondelēz, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and many others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving successful remedies for past and current harms. Each landscape, and each community’s history and needs are unique and require solutions tailored to the specifics of each particular place. 

Jambo Reuhat’s customary territory and forests  

Jambo Reuhat village is one of the customary communities in Sumatra’s Aceh Province that are seeking legal recognition of their land rights and the return of ancestral lands that have been allocated by the government to two companies for palm oil production––PT. Bumi Flora and PT. Dwi Kencana Semesta. 

The customary forests in the Jambo Reuhat community’s territory hold significant cultural, ecological, and economic value for the local community. They are also home to critically endangered Sumatran elephants as well as sunbears, deer, a multitude of monkeys, native forest bees and a rich abundance of birdlife. The area is a crucial habitat corridor for Sumatran elephants, providing needed connectivity between surrounding forest patches, which are currently engulfed by sprawling oil palm plantations. The region’s lush rainforest is filled with a huge variety of trees and plants that have economic and ecological value. Especially important are resin trees, tualang wood (honeycomb wood), many trees in the ficus family, bamboo forests, rattan, jernang (dragon’s blood red resin) and many others with high biodiversity values. 

Aerial views of Jambo Reuhat forest, East Aceh on October 10th, 2023. (RAN/Nanang Sujana)

Aceh’s long history of conflict and community management of customary forests

Located in Banda Alam, East Aceh, Jambo Reuhat is one village that has been impacted by Aceh’s broader historical context. The story of the Jambo Reuhat community is emblematic of the struggles faced by customary communities across Aceh to protect their lands and resources amidst an onslaught of historical challenges, including colonialism, armed conflicts, post military occupation and oppressive government policies. 

The province of Aceh has a long history of customary communities managing and stewarding their forest resources through customary laws and practices, deeply intertwined with the region’s cultural, social, and environmental heritage. From the time when Aceh had an autonomous government, communities relied on the rich biodiversity of the forest for their livelihoods, practicing sustainable methods of resource management that were passed down through generations. Community management of customary forests continues today, with the potential to be scaled up across 819 mukims in Aceh. A mukim is an administrative division that is unique to Aceh––it is a federation of several villages under customary law. Mukims play an important role in the stewardship of customary forests as each mukim has customary forest management laws which are very complex and are upheld by communities in accordance with the spirit of protecting the forest. 

Colonization and the arrival of extractive industries

The arrival of European colonial powers, particularly following the Dutch war which was declared in 1873, brought significant changes to Aceh’s land tenure and resource management systems. The Dutch colonial administration introduced centralized governance structures and began to assert control over land and natural resources, often at the expense of Indigenous land rights. The Dutch implemented forestry policies aimed at maximizing resource extraction and revenue generation. This often led to the marginalization of Indigenous communities and their customary land management practices. Forest areas were converted for commercial logging, agriculture, and plantation development, displacing Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. This included the establishment of the first palm oil plantation in Aceh by a Belgium company––now known as PT. Socfin––in 1911.

After Indonesia gained independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, efforts were made to address historical injustices and empower Indigenous communities. However, the post-independence government continued to pursue policies that prioritized economic development over Indigenous rights and environmental conservation. Challenges persist, including conflicting interests between conservation goals, commercial exploitation of natural resources, and the rights of Indigenous communities. 

During the Indonesian government’s military occupation period in Aceh, which lasted from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, customary forests faced significant challenges and transformations. The military presence in Aceh was primarily aimed at suppressing the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), an armed separatist group that sought independence from Indonesia. During this time illegal logging was rife and communities were forced to flee their customary forests.

In the post-conflict period, palm oil expansion has skyrocketed to cover over 700,000 hectares of lands in company-owned plantations that were allocated by the national, provincial and district governments and in small landholdings outside concessions that are controlled by land speculators––including ex combatants from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The palm oil sector has largely established plantations without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of customary communities––many of which returned to their ancestral territories to find them under the control of palm oil companies. Many land conflicts remain unresolved today and there has been little progress in government-led efforts to recognize and formalize customary forest management rights in Aceh. 

However, Aceh is a province of Indonesia that continues to have a special autonomous status which gives the local government greater authority, including in the management of its forests, which stretch over 10 million acres (over 4 million hectares). In 2023, the Indonesian government announced the recognition of customary land rights of 15 communities in Aceh––a historic first for the region. District governments in Aceh have also announced jurisdictional programs–– like the one recently launched by the Bupati of Aceh Timur––that include much needed programs to map customary forests in the north-east of the Leuser Ecosystem. 

A dedicated network of local civil society organizations are working together on additional proposals for customary forests in the districts of Aceh Selatan, Aceh Barat Daya, Aceh Utara, Aceh Timur, Aceh Tamiang and Nagan Raya and international organizations have also begun supporting programs that advance community-based forest management and securing land tenure rights for Mukims in Aceh. It is critical that efforts advance towards the legal recognition of customary rights for Mukims across all of these districts, including Aceh Timur, which is where the Jambo Reuhat village is located. 

Threats to Jambo Reuhat community from palm oil expansion 

Land tenure conflicts in Jambo Reuhat have occured since the early 1990s, between the local community and two palm oil companies called PT. Bumi Flora and PT. Dwi Kencana Semesta, when these companies started opening palm oil plantations in areas overlapping the Jambo Reuhat Village customary area. The conflict escalated in 1993, when the Indonesian Government granted concession rights to PT. Bumi Flora without sufficient consultation with the Jambo Reuhat village or the Mukim of Kuta Dayah. At that time, Aceh was under the status of a Military Operations Area (DOM), in order to overcome the Free Aceh Movement, the central government severely restricted civil liberties, including the rights to assemble and express opinions. The central government also enforced strict supervision and intimidation of community activities that are deemed to disrupt security and order.

Aerial views of PT. Bumi Flora plantation on the border of Jambo Reuhat village, East Aceh in October, 2023. (RAN/Nanang Sujana)

The two palm oil companies’ concession areas overlap thousands of hectares of Jambo Reuhat’s community endowment, including community gardens, property, a mosque,  meunasah (houses of worship/traditional halls from the old villages of Seuneubok Buket Kawa Seuneubok Alue Kacang, Alue Seunong and Seuneubok Tuha Farm), cemeteries, and areas of customary lands belonging to the community. These lands are the ancestral heritage of Jambo Reuhat since the Seuneubok Lada era. Today, Jambo Reuhat’s customary forest is surrounded by palm oil plantations that threaten the availability of water for Jambo Reuhat irrigation, which irrigates around 2,625 hectares (6,487 acres) of rice fields. The Jambo Reuhat customary forest is also a very important buffer zone for the prevention of catastrophic flood risk for five sub-districts in East Aceh. The risk of flooding has been greatly increased for the Jambo Reuhat village and dozens of other villages in the downstream area after forests were cleared for palm oil plantations. In the last two years, there have been numerous destructive floods which have resulted in houses being submerged in water and yellowed rice being unable to be harvested and left rotting. 

The Jambo Reuhat forest still provides habitat for a remarkable array of biodiversity, both fauna and flora, but it remains at risk of being converted into palm oil plantations. The presence of the palm oil plantations have cut off the Jambo Reuhat community’s access to their customary forests. To reach their forest, the community now must navigate through a palm oil plantation area which is currently abandoned, with a damaged dirt road. This land tenure conflict between the Jambo Reuhat community and PT. Bumi Flora and PT. Dwi Kencana Semesta is ongoing to this day and there has been no dignified resolution. 

There is new hope that the challenge of overlapping boundaries can be overcome through securing agreements to revoke palm oil permits, or change the boundaries of palm oil concessions, via jurisdictional programs like the one recently launched by the Bupati of Aceh Timur and that this program can support the next phase of mapping of the Jambo Reuhat’s customary forests in the north-east of the Leuser Ecosystem.  

New hope and opportunities to secure protections for customary forests 

Recently, the Jambo Reuhat community has started a new initiative to map its customary territory in the hope that doing so can advance efforts to secure legal recognition of their rights to their customary forests and lands for future generations. The first phase of participatory village mapping has been carried out to identify the boundaries of traditional territories and communal assets, as well as the High Conservation Values of their customary forests, using the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA). The results are clear. Forests that remain on their lands are high in conservation, carbon, and social values and warrant protection from further palm oil development. The HCSA is a globally recognized land use planning tool for identifying viable forests that need to be protected from deforestation that occurs to convert rainforests to palm oil plantations. Plantation companies like PT. Bumi Flora and PT. Dwi Kencana Semesta must adhere to the HCSA standard to supply palm oil to global traders and consumer brands with ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ (NDPE) commitments.


Old pepper trees in Jambo Reuhat village were identified during the field validation efforts. These pepper trees stand as proof that the Jambo Reuhat community has long occupied this area and that their customary forests include areas of High Conservation Value. During the interviews with community leaders, they shared testimonies stating that their ancestors received a letter from the King of Idi requesting establishment of pepper plantations. (RAN/Nanang Sujana)


Members of the Jambo Reuhat village conducted participatory mapping and the validation of indicative High Carbon Stock forest maps using the HCSA approach which identified areas of High Conservation Value, including their bamboo forest, East Aceh on October 9th, 2023. (RAN/Nanang Sujana)

Global brands that source palm oil from Aceh Timur have a significant role to play in ensuring that their suppliers––including PT. Bumi Flora and PT. Dwi Kencana Semesta––  adhere to ‘No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation’ (NDPE) requirements, especially the recognition of Indigenous rights, and investing in ‘forest positive’ programs that are being established by the district government. There is a significant opportunity to ensure that “forest positive” jurisdictional programs that are established by major brands ––such as PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelēz, Nestlé and Colgate Palmolive, in partnership with traders, local governments and customary rights holders advance local bylaws and participatory mapping efforts that enable the recognition of customary forests. There is hope that the governments of Aceh and Indonesia can once and for all address overlapping claims with palm oil companies and revoke palm oil concessions on lands proposed for customary or village forests. 

Members of the Jambo Reuhat village conduct participatory mapping and the validation of indicative High Carbon Stock forest maps using the HCSA approach in Jambo Reuhat.  East Aceh on October 9th, 2023. (RAN/Nanang Sujana)