Launch: New report on palm oil expansion and conflict in Indonesia

Press release

Land conflicts between rural Indonesians and palm oil companies: new Report finds that that Indonesia’s government is ineffective in resolving conflicts.

New report Palm oil expansion and conflict in Indonesia: An evaluation of the effectiveness of conflict resolution mechanisms by KITLV, Universitas Andalas and Wageningen University will be launched on 27 October 2021 at 9:00 AM WIB, at Ashley Hotel Jakarta and presented to Dr. Surya Tjandra (Deputy Minister of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning/National Land Agency (ATR/BPN)) and Abet Nego Tarigan (Deputy II of the Presidential Staff Office (KSP)) and representatives of Indonesia’s government, civil society, the palm oil industry and conflict resolution practitioners.

To follow the live stream of this event see Epistema Institute Youtube Channel.

The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations across Indonesia has spawned some 4,000 land conflicts according to the National Land Agency (BPN). These land conflicts are a major problem for all concerned, a new study emphasises, and the search for effective ways to resolve these conflicts is thus vital, both for local communities and indigenous peoples and for the companies involved. Lead researcher Afrizal (Universitas Andalas):

“These conflicts are an urgent problem: these conflicts entail hardship and economic damage for many rural Indonesians and entail operational costs and reputational damage for palm oil companies”.

Academics from Leiden and Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Universitas Andalas in Indonesia, in collaboration with six Indonesian NGOs (HuMa, Epistema Institute, Gemawan, Scale Up, Walhi Sumbar, Walhi Kalteng) have just published the findings of their long-term research project, which they describe as the  ‘first-ever, large-scale collaborative effort to document a large number of conflicts’. Addressing the need to understand general patterns, this project has for the first time has documented in detail the causes, conflict resolution efforts and outcomes of 150 conflicts. The study was designed to distil the lessons of what works and what doesn’t to resolve these land disputes in the palm oil sector, based on a detailed review of 150 cases in Riau, West Sumatra, West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan.

This research finds that palm oil conflicts are rarely solved. Communities have sought redress through three main routes – mediation by local government, appeal to the courts and filing complaints to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) Complaints Panel. In 68 percent of the studied conflicts, community representatives stated that no resolution was achieved. And when conflicts are successfully resolved, the process takes long: on average, over 9 years. In that light the report concludes that available conflict resolution mechanisms are largely ineffective. Lead researcher Ahmad Dhiaulhaq (KITLV):

These results show that at present the Indonesian government lacks effective mechanisms to resolve these conflicts. As these conflicts damage both the welfare of communities and the profits of companies, the Indonesian government can and should do much more to help communities to address their grievances”.

Communities tend to avoid taking their grievances to court as they tend to loose. And when they do win (in only nine cases), in five cases the verdicts were not implemented. Instead, the research finds that communities often (in 73% of cases) turn to local authorities (such as district heads, police officials or camats)  for help to mediate these conflicts. Yet this mediation tends to fail to produce effective results: Underlying this lack of effective conflict resolution is what the researchers call the ‘rightlessness’ of the communities. On the one hand, legal recognition of communities’ land rights is lacking and, on the other hand, what protections do exist in the law are frequently not enforced. Yet companies are securing extensive concessions from government agencies to convert these areas to oil palm plantations, giving them unequal status in negotiating with communities, who are unable to resist the take-over of their lands. Lead researcher Ahmad Dhiaulhaq:

“The majority of the conflicts that we studied involved community members who complained that they lost their land without providing consent and without receiving compensation”.

The sense of local grievance is exacerbated by companies’ routine failures either to provide the 20% smallholdings to communities that the law requires or else to provide a fair share of the profits from company-run smallholder schemes to the communities in whose name they are established. ‘Clientelistic’ relations between local politicians and company officials compound the social exclusion. These problems account for the great majority of conflicts with the third main cause being estate workers’ dissatisfaction with their conditions and pay.

The investigation found a pattern of deception in the tactics that companies routinely use to persuade communities to surrender their lands ranging from bribery, buying off village leaders, falsifying receipts and consent forms, bullying by local land brokers, to police intimidation and harassment. The studied 150 conflicts led to 749 arrests, 243 injured people and 19 deaths. Afrizal:

“We found a worrying tendency of local police officials to arrest leaders of community protests. On average each conflict leads to the arrest of five people. As Indonesians have the right to demonstrate and to voice their opinions, this criminalization of community leaders is in most cases unwarranted”.

In the light these findings concerning the ineffectiveness of available conflict resolution mechanisms, the report uses its research to identify concrete measures to strengthen conflict resolution. Among others, the report identifies the need to set up more independent conflict mediation boards, to better monitoring of corporate violations, to ensure a more effective implementation of inti-plasma schemes, to better uphold transparency in the palm oil sector and to adopt measures to end the intimidation and criminalization of protesting community leaders. Ahmad Dhiaulhaq:

“Our findings suggest NGO support for communities, in the form of legal aid, community organizing or mediation, could help make palm oil conflicts less intractable”.

Full report Palm oil expansion and conflict in Indonesia: An evaluation of the effectiveness of conflict resolution mechanisms

By Ward Berenschot, Ahmad Dhiaulhaq, Afrizal, Otto Hospes, a joint publication of KITLV Leiden, Andalas University, Wageningen University, Lembaga Gemawan, Scale Up, Walhi West Sumatra, Walhi Central Kalimantan, Epistema Institute and HuMA. 

The report (in English and Indonesian) can be downloaded at:

For more information

Afrizal (Universitas Andalas): (+62) 0813-6309-9882, [email protected].
Asep Yunan Firdaus (Epistema Institute): (+62) 0816-207676, [email protected]

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