South East Asia: The campaign against destructive palm oil

The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in South East Asia is being driven by rising global demand for edible oils and bio-fuels. Thailand and the Philippines have a burgeoning palm oil industry, plantations have been established in Cambodia, and Vietnam is exploring the possibility of cashing in on this crop.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the top producers of palm oil in the world, and in these countries the industry fuels land dispossession and loss of livelihoods for indigenous peoples. Global consumption of processed palm oil more than doubled over the last ten years, with demand increasing mostly in China, India and Eastern Europe. Large-scale production in Malaysia and Indonesia started in the late 1980s and rapid expansion between 2007 and 2010 has devastated bio-diverse rainforests, replacing them with mono-crop ‘green wastelands’.

Millions of hectares of land have been swallowed by these plantations: an estimated 4.6 million hectares in Malaysia, and 9.4 million in Indonesia. Both countries intend to continue increasing the amount of land dedicated to palm oil. In Malaysia’s Sarawak state, the government plans to double the area devoted to palm oil while Indonesia plans to double its palm oil production to 20 million hectares by 2020. This expansion will continue to be driven by large estates, rather than independent smallholders.

To achieve this expansion, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia have handed over indigenous peoples’ lands for palm oil, despite their customary land claims. In Sarawak, Malaysia, and in Sumatra, Indonesia, oil plantations have polluted rivers, destroyed wildlife that once supported indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, and led to communities being evicted from their lands. Many of the land conflicts in these countries are directly related to the expansion of palm oil.

Indigenous peoples’ opposition to palm oil expansion has become increasingly violent. In November 2011, indigenous Dayak Benuaq peoples in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province protested against the conversion of their lands into palm oil plantations. But the Malaysia-based PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa company has continued to clear the land and evict the community, supported by the police and other security personnel, according to reports from local NGO Telapak.

Communities like Dayak Benuaq, who struggle against palm oil plantations, meet violent reprisals. According to the Borneo Resource Institute, in February an indigenous community in Rumah Ranggon, Sarawak, Malaysia, were intimidated by a hundred armed men, allegedly hired by the palm oil company to force residents to halt their blockade protecting their forests. Police later arrested the leader of the armed group.

A flood of these incidents has led to increased pressure on palm oil companies to prevent abusive and destructive practices. The industry formed a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004, to promote sustainable palm oil practices and raise the environmental profile of the industry. Comprising oil palm producers, manufacturers, investors and social and environmental NGOs, the RSPO has created a process to have plantations certified as sustainable.

Some NGOs have refused to join the RSPO, arguing that its standards have not done enough to address land disputes and environmental issues. But others, such as Sawit Watch, Indonesia’s leading watchdog NGO on the palm oil industry, have participated and helped shape the RSPO’s criteria for certification. The standard affirms the rights of indigenous peoples to their customary lands, requires adequate compensation, and insists that no lands can be taken from indigenous peoples and local communities without their free, prior and informed consent. The standard also requires the fair treatment of smallholders and prohibits discriminatory practices against women.

One of the biggest players in palm oil – Singapore-based Wilmar International, a leading agribusiness group in Asia – is a member of the RSPO and has made various commitments to sustainable palm oil production. In November, however, the Forest People’s Programme in partnership with Sawit Watch released a report documenting continued land confiscation, evictions and intimidation by the Indonesian police on behalf of Wilmar’s suppliers against an indigenous community in Jambi. Director of Sawit Watch, Abetnego Tarigan, commented: ‘Frankly we are very disappointed. We expect leading members of the RSPO to scrupulously adhere to the agreed standard.’

While the RSPO has developed strong standards through consultative processes, further efforts are needed to ensure that these standards are implemented. But in September, the Indonesian Palm Oil Association withdrew from the RSPO, and the Indonesian government says it will now implement it own ‘green’ standards for sustainable palm oil. The Malaysian government is also starting its own certification process for ‘sustainable’ palm oil. This has drawn accusations that these versions of sustainable palm oil are ‘greenwash’ and a watering down of the RSPO’s criteria. The international community must continue to demand palm oil that follows the sustainability model provided by the RSPO, along with implementation that protects the rights of affected communities.

Photo: Palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Credit: Rainforest Action Network

For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

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Date: 19/06/2012


Indonesia (incl W Papua)


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Indigenous Peoples
Land Rights

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