Palm oil firms 'taking away' locals' income

Palm oil firms 'taking away' locals' income

The Jakarta Post

While a handful of oil palm plantations are raking in a fortune from their activities, many villagers are reeling at the loss of the source of much of their livelihoods.

The expanding plantations have also seen wildlife driven from their habitat, put on the verge of extinction or forced to compete with villagers for food.

„I miss the animals we used to have back in my hometown," Guntur, from Telawan district in Kotawaringin regency, Central Kalimantan, says after a recent trip to Jakarta's Ragunan Zoo.

He adds the animals in his village disappeared when the oil palm plantations came around.

„There used to be orangutans everywhere. But now you'd be lucky to spot one orangutan a year, ever since the palm oil companies came to our village," he says.

Guntur came to Jakarta - sponsored by three friends - to report on palm oil companies he says have snatched up hundreds of hectares of land owned by the villagers.

„The first oil palm company came to the village in 2002, and the next company a year after," he says. „Since then, the damage to the forests has gotten worse."

He adds hundreds of hectares of forest around his village have been turned into oil palm plantations, with nothing remaining from the original forests.

The wildlife exodus has also been drastic, with just a handful of monkeys still frolicking in the treetops, and the occasional rare glimpse of a sunbear, Guntur says.

„When we used to go hunting back in the day, we could get at least one kancil [Java mouse-deer], but now that's down to only one a year."

The animals have consequently been driven to foraging and living off the villagers' crops, which are also eaten by insects and birds whose habitat has been razed for the oil palms.

„Our harvests have frequently failed since 2002, due to locusts. In 2008, the whole village lost its crops to birds," Guntur says.

A report by Save Our Borneo, an environmental protection foundation, claims oil palm plantations are wiping out forests that have long been a source of income for natives, rich in wildlife, medicinal plants, rattan and clean air.

The forests are also home to insects and other creatures that attack the villagers' crops when their natural habitat is destroyed.

The report also says Telawan district has seen a slew of problems in land acquisition by oil palm companies.

Between 2004 and 2006, three such companies made massive expansions in the area, with each now occupying 19,000 hectares, the report says.

However, Edi Suhardi, head of CSR at oil palm heavyweight Agro Harapan Lestari Group, says the group is a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

„Our companies are very responsible and always comply with the rules set by the RSPO," he says.

He adds the RSPO lays out principles that must be followed, including a restriction on the types of land that can be farmed, which rules out protected forests.

„There are seven basic principles in the RSPO and we have to follow the strict indicators. One of them is high conservation value of the plantation. Those who damage forests are usually companies that are not RSPO members."

The RSPO keeps tabs on its members through complaints registered on its website. RSPO members must also disclose data such as the size and location of their plantations.

„We do not clear-cut prime forests, only land that has been previously used or exploited, for logging, for instance," Edi says.

„Mostly we clear-cut unproductive land or areas left by villagers who farm nomadically. Our company also has programs to preserve land for orangutans. We see palm oil as part of development, but we try to make it a sustainable development," he added.

Guntur, however, says oil palm companies have not helped improve the villagers' welfare.

Each villager working for the plantations earns Rp 36,000 a day (US$3), he claims.

„That's less than Rp 1 million a month. We used to make Rp 2.5 million to Rp 3 million before the companies came."

Orangutans remain the most vulnerable because they do not only lose their habitat, but are killed when they try to feed off the oil palm fruits, now that their food has gone.

The Center for Orangutan Protection warned last April that at least 3,000 orangutans in the Central Kalimantan regency of Katingan faced imminent death due to the clear-cutting of their habitat for oil palm plantations. The permit to clear-cut was issued by the regent. (iwp)