Friday, March 19, 2010

Tough week for Sinar Mas

from Ayu Oktaviani

Sinar Mas, Indonesia’s largest oil palm company which has come under considerable criticism for its palm oil operations in recent years, was handed two significant defeats this week.

Food giant Nestlé found itself on the defensive, with the release of a report from Greenpeace criticizing the company for buying palm oil from Sinar Mas. This comes three months after the largest buyer of palm oil, Unilever, announced that it would no longer be purchasing palm oil from Sinar Mas, followed a month later by a similar announcement from Kraft Foods. Nestlé’s immediate response that Sinar Mas palm oil was only used in products sold on the domestic market, a practice that they would discontinue, showed how controversial Sinar Mas has become. Western consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about palm oil plantations that have been clearing forests across the archipelago, destroying local habitats, particularly in Sumatera, Borneo and Papua where most of the remaining rainforests are located in Indonesia.  

A much less reported victory for local resistance against oil palm happened on March 18 in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). Two local indigenous leaders, Japin and Vitalis Andi, were released from custody after spending more than three weeks in a Ketapang jail for opposing a Sinar Mas oil palm plantation which is destroying indigenous lands. 

The case began in April 2008, when PT. Bangun Nusa Mandiri (PT. BNM), a subsidiary of Sinar Mas, began clearing land for an oil palm plantation in the Marau Subdistrict of Ketapang, West Kalimantan. By September 2009, the company had destroyed 250 hectares of land traditionally held by the Jalai Dayak people in Silat Hulu village.

From the start, the community refused to hand over their fields to the company, and made various attempts to negotiate with the company directly and through the local government, but to no effect. On September 28, 2009, Mr. Japin from Silat Hulu reported the company to the local Marau police office on behalf of his community. The next day, about 60 people from Silat Hulu collectively confiscated two bulldozers and a theodolite from PT. BNM in an effort to stop the clearing. The community soon gave the theodolite over to the police, but continued to hold the heavy equipment as evidence in their case against PT. BNM. 

The community also applied traditional justice mechanisms to the company, demanding financial compensation for trees and other vegetation that had been cleared as well as refusing the company further entry to their lands. The company ignored these demands and the traditional legal system. The community continued to look for justice, and on October 26, 2009, Luhai Hartanto, B, Ritung and Japin, on behalf of the indigenous people of Silat Hulu, brought the case to the West Kalimantan delegate for the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), and to the provincial police department of West Kalimantan. 

On October 15, fully-armed local police came to Silat Hulu, to secure the peace and negotiate a settlement between the villagers and the Sinar Mas subsidiary. The police did not flatly reject the community-imposed penalty, but attempted to renegotiate the compensation amount for plots destroyed by PT. BNM. The community agreed to reduce the monetary compensation from 1.3 billion Rupiah to 510 million Rupiah (US$ 140,000 to US$55,000), in the hope of a quick resolution, with assurances that the police would push for PT BNM to resolve the case. 
One week later, the Ketapang police department issued a summons for five villagers from Silat Hulu, Japin, Ayol, Ritung, Anton and Kimsoi, and a sixth for Vitalis Andi, a local leader who is the Secretary General of Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of Jalai Kendawangan (AMA-JK) and a journalist with Kalimantan Review. The six were singled out as responsible for the village’s collective action in confiscating the bulldozers and disrupting the commercial activities of the plantation. 

On October 27, 2009, Komnas HAM issued a response to the Silat Hulu case, sending a letter to the Bupati (Regent) of Ketapang. It requested an end to PT. BNM’s violations of the rights of the Silat Hulu community, calling for the end to all PT. BNM activity on Silat Hulu indigenous lands. It also called for an investigation into the activities of PT. BNM, and for the local government to protect and restore the traditional lands of the Silat Hulu community. 

Palm oil producers like Sinar Mas are destroying vast tracts of rainforest for palm oil, pushing orang-utans to the brink of extinction, endangering local communities’ survival and accelerating climate change. Greenpeace photo. 

The suspects appeared at the Ketapang District Police to answer the summons on November 5, accompanied by their lawyer Martinus Yestri Pobas and 2 legal partners (Blasius Hendi Candra and Yonas). After three hours, the charges against Anton and Kimsoi were dropped and they were allowed to leave freely; Ritung and Ayol were also allowed to leave freely with their status changed from suspects to witnesses. Only Japin and Vitalis Andi remained as suspects. They were not detained, but required to report every month to the Ketapang Police.

On November 19, 2009 the community handed over the confiscated bulldozer keys to the police, after the company agreed to follow an indigenous ceremony and give compensation for violating the community’s customs in the form of 21 tajau (urns) and related offerings, with financial compensation for the destroyed plants to be resolved at a later date. Rather than honor the community’s request to keep the bulldozers as evidence in the case, the police returned them to the palm oil company which continued to use them in the area. 

The palm oil plantation’s encroachment on indigenous lands raises questions about the authorities willingness to defend indigenous rights, which are protected in the Indonesian Constitution and the Human Rights law of 1999. The community and their legal representatives have also raised further questions about the operations of the Sinar Mas subsidiary, PT. BNM, with the accusations that the company:

1. Violated Indonesian law 18/2004 regarding plantations, by failing to adequately inform the community of Silat Hulu of their rights and reach and agreement to purchase or use their lands.

2. Failed to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment for the project, in violation of government regulation PP 27/1999.

3. Cleared the disputed area before obtaining formal permission to do so, in volation of regulation 2/1999 from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Furthermore, the actions of the local authorities question their ability to maintain the principle of equality before the law. In this case, complaints were first formally filed first by the Silat Hulu community (September 28, 2009), but the police only began to react when the company, PT. BNM, filed a counter-complaint on October 9. A police officer later claimed that the PT. BNM complaint was actually filed on September 9, but contradicted himself by stating that the incident reported (community confiscation of the bulldozers) occurred on September 26. By most accounts the incident occurred on September 29, the day after the community filed their complaint with the police, but in either case there is no explanation for how a complaint could have been filed more than two weeks before the incident actually occurred. 

Three months after the equipment had been returned, Japin and Vitalis Andi received a return summons from the police. The case against them was submitted to the Ketapang Prosecutor’s office, and on February 22, 2010 the two were detained in the Ketapang jail. The pair’s lawyer immediately protested the grounds of their arrest, as the suspects had been fulfilling their monthly reporting requirements and no evidence had been brought against them. On March 2, the Indigenous Peoples' Defense Counsel for Andi-Japin, which included 22 prominent lawyers, submitted a formal request to release the pair on bail with 500 local and national figures acting as guarantors, but the request was denied. The two were brought to trial on March 9 in Ketapang, and hundreds of supporters filled the Ketapang courthouse. At the second hearing, on Thursday March 18, the judge agreed to drop the charges against Japin and Vitalis Andi due to lack of evidence, and they were released. 

While the issues surrounding the personal freedom of Japin and Vitalis Andi appear to have been resolved, the community’s larger concerns remained unanswered. The two were merely representing the community’s desire to stop palm oil plantations from taking over their lands, and their arrest was merely a warning to the community, in an attempt to stifle dissent. However, hundreds of villagers made the five hour journey to attend the court hearings, and have shown that they remain opposed to Sinar Mas despite the intimidation.  

Greenpeace says: Nestlé, maker of Kit Kat, uses palm oil from companies that are trashing Indonesian rainforests, threatening the livelihoods of local people and pushing orang-utans towards extinction.We all deserve to have a break - but having one shouldn't involve taking a bite out of Indonesia's precious rainforests. Ask Nestlé to give rainforests and orang-utans a break and stop buying palm oil from destroyed forests.

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