Oil Palm Devastating Indigenous Communities

By Josh Ran

I just returned to Kuching after visiting with seven Indigenous communities in northern Sarawak (in Malaysian Borneo). What we saw was a tragic and infuriating picture of collusion between the state government and oil palm and logging companies to cheat, harass, intimidate, arrest and displace the people who have lived on and cultivated this land for generations. In one community, about a hundred people greeted us and the headman gave a speech saying we were “like gods sent from heaven” to help them.

Community 1 had six houses destroyed by a logging company that had been granted a license to log the community’s territory by the state. In 2000, the community sued for their land rights and compensation for the houses. They won twice and both times the state appealed. They brought in a new judge for the third trial, and the community lost. While they appeal, the logging company continues taking trees from the disputed land. Over and over, we heard that companies continued to log or plant oil palm while lawsuits dragged on for years.

In 2004, Community 2 was given two months’ eviction notice by a company licensed by the state. The company cleared the community’s fruit palm and rubber trees (which would serve as proof that the land belongs to the community) and planted oil palm. Police arrested three women who protested and kept them in a room so dark that they couldn’t tell if it was night or day. Another community member was arrested for trying to get the names of the who had cleared their land. The community is still fighting the eviction and trying to get control of their land. In the meantime, the company has fenced in the disputed territory. The community can no longer gain income from fishing, because the river has become too polluted by the plantation’s pesticides.

Community 3 described how another oil palm company offered to start a joint venture giving the community 30% of the profits, if the community signed a memorandum of agreement. The agreement is in English and is “signed” with the thumb prints of the community members, who didn’t have their own lawyer and don’t speak or read English. The agreement says that they acknowledge that they are squatting on the company’s land and that they agree to dismantle their homes and move. In subsequent meetings, the company promised them a 50/50 split, but they haven’t gotten anything in writing and still fear that they’ll be forced to move.

In Community 4, the government granted a provisional lease to an oil palm company after a helicopter survey found no evidence that the community was cultivating the land. Of course, the helicopter couldn’t see their fruit trees, bamboo and other proof that they’ve used the land for generations under the taller tree cover.

When we visited Community 5, four residents were still in jail and one had just been released. Community members told us that the oil palm company had repeatedly sent gangsters to intimidate them and nearby communities to get them to sell their land. Many had sold out of fear. The community filed more than 20 police reports, but the police never did anything to protect them. Then, on April 14, the community headman was arrested for allegedly carrying a homemade pistol without a license (a charge the community members say is false). Other community members were asked to come in for questioning about the case, but they were arrested instead without being told the charges. You can read more about the case by clicking on the press release at the BRIMAS website.

Community 6 was given 21 days notice to vacate their land by another oil palm company. They’re fighting the eviction and hoping their selection as part of a United Nations Development Programme project will give them some leverage. There’s nowhere else for them to go, and they say there will be rioting throughout the country if people keep trying to kick Indigenous people off their lands.

Finally, Community 7 told us they can’t send their children to school because the government won’t issue identification cards to the parents (who don’t have birth certificates). This also means they can’t get jobs beyond cultivating their land. Like Community 3, they were offered a joint venture with the oil palm company and signed an agreement in English. The company told them not to cause a disturbance and everything would be taken care of, so they’ve been waiting since 2006 for their first compensation from the company.

Sorry for such a long blogpost. These communities are relying on us to get their story out to the public, so I felt a responsibility to tell you a little bit from each of the places that gave us so much hospitality and put so much faith in our ability to help make things right. I hope we can live up to that trust.