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'We can't pray to the god of oil palm', cry Indonesia's indigenous tribes

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A damning report by Human Rights Watch highlights the Indonesian government's failure to protect the rights of indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Sumatra's Jambi territory.

In an 89-page report entitled "When We Lost the Forest, We Lost Everything’: Oil Palm Plantations and Rights Violations in Indonesia", the group documents how the loss of forest is occurring on a massive scale and harms local indigenous peoples.

Over 100 people are interviewed in the report which highlights how a combination of "weak laws, poor enforcement and the failure of oil palm plantation companies to fulfil their human rights responsibilities have adversely affected indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihoods, food, water, and culture in Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, and Sarolangun regency, Jambi."

The report focuses specifically on the plantation operations of two palm oil companies: PT Ledo Lestari in West Kalimantan and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1, a subsidiary of the Jardine Matheson Group, in Jambi.

Both oil palm plantations have had a devastating impact on the rights of two indigenous peoples: the Iban of West Kalimantan (who are of course related to Malaysia's Iban community) and the Orang Rimba, a semi-nomadic, forest-dependent indigenous people in central Sumatra.

"The forest means everything. Forest provides water. Water is blood, land is body, wood is breath. When we lost the forest, we lost everything. We can’t pray to the god of oil palm," said Mormonus, a village leader from Semunying Jaya who has been arrested in the past for protesting PT Ledo Lestari’s expansion into their forest.

Francesca, a 28-year-old Iban mother of two, said she and her husband refused relocation and all that happened was that company representatives torched her home, rendering the family homeless.

"An assistant manager came to my home. On that day my oldest son had fever. He said to my husband, 'Your five hectares of land here are gone and two hectares here are gone. Go to the company and get your money.' My husband told them he doesn’t want to sell."

"Months later, while I was at my mother’s new house [in the plantation] and my husband was away in Malaysia, we heard a loud noise and could see smoke. I went to see, and it was crazy. My house was already burned. Everything was in there, my son’s bicycle, clothes, and all the wood we planned to build a house, all was gone," she said.

Susanti, a single mother of four, was threatened with a similar fate and felt she was left with no choice.

"They cleared the land and said I must move to another place. I had to sell my land or let them take it with no pay. I did this to survive. They (company) did not provide transport for me to move my things (to the new location). They burned my wood and belongings I left behind," said Susanti.

In 2018, President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on new permits to oil palm plantations but in reality, successive governments in Indonesia have neglected widespread forest clearance, facilitating the proliferation of oil palm plantations.

In May 2013, the Indonesian Constitutional Court handed down a landmark judgment that granted indigenous peoples rights to their customary forests but very little has been done to identify or protect these lands.

Between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia lost 24 million hectares of forest cover, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom. 

Indonesia now has about 14 million hectares of land planted with oil palm.

Deforestation on such massive scale threatens not only the wellbeing and culture of the indigenous populations, but also has global significance associated with climate change, said the report.

The two areas singled out in the documentary, West Kalimantan and Sumatra, have also been revealed to be the source of forest fires that have engulfed many parts of Malaysia in a thick haze.

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