Asia-Pacific

'Human rights tragedy': Palm oil plantations taking toll on Indigenous Indonesians

Mnot was not consulted before a plantation was established in his village. Source: Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch claims Indigenous groups in Indonesia are 'suffering significant harm' at the hands of palm oil companies.

Indigenous people around Indonesia are losing their forests to palm oil plantations at a "massive scale", according to a rights group.

In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch examined the work of two palm oil companies, PT Ledo Lestari in Indonesia's West Kalimantan province and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 in Jambi province.

The organisation claims that both companies had "a devastating impact on the livelihoods of [Indigenous] communities, especially women, and on their access to food, potable water, and their culture".

The living conditions of one Indigenous group in Indonesia.
The living conditions of one Indigenous group in Indonesia.
Human Rights Watch

Indonesia is by far the world's largest producer of palm oil, an ingredient found in around 50 per cent of products on Australian supermarket shelves, including food, cosmetics and toiletries.

And Human Rights Watch alleged "the struggles of Indonesia's Indigenous people" are "invisibly integrated into [these] consumer products".

A palm oil plantation in Indonesia.
A palm oil plantation in Indonesia.
Getty

Looking at the two provinces, the report said there was "no evidence that these oil palm plantation companies adequately consulted with affected households until after forests were significantly destroyed".

It said in one instance, villagers only learned the company had initiated operations in their forest "when bulldozers and other equipment rolled in to raze their land".

In another, "community members said company representatives burned down their traditional homes at the old village, including the belongings of residents who refused to relocate".

Human Rights Watch said many relocated Indigenous people now live in "abject poverty" after receiving little or no compensation and the loss of forests which previously "provided community members with most of their needs, from food to rattan".

Palm oil is found in around 50 per cent of products on Australian supermarket shelves.
Palm oil is found in around 50 per cent of products on Australian supermarket shelves.
Getty

The Indonesian government was also heavily criticised in the report.

"Successive governments in Indonesia have turned a blind eye to widespread forest clearance, facilitating the proliferation of oil palm plantations," the report said.

In 2018, President Joko Widodo signed a moratorium on new licenses for palm oil plantations but environment and rights groups want the government to go much further.

Human Rights Watch's Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu said Indonesia's parliament "should promptly adopt the bill to protect Indigenous rights to stop further irreversible damage caused by the palm industry".

"The Indonesian government has created a system that facilitates the deprivation of Indigenous land rights," she said in a statement.

"Indonesia's Indigenous communities have suffered significant harm since losing their lush ancestral forests to oil palm plantations.

"The poverty, hunger, and loss of identity experienced by Indigenous people in exchange for oil palm and the consumer goods it produces is a human rights tragedy." 

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