(P66AB) The Contentious Politics of Palm Oil Expansion in Southeast Asia
Part 1Session 1
Wed 09:00-10:30 K10 | 1.25
Part 2Session 2
Wed 11:00-12:30 K10 | 1.25
- Ahmad Dhiaulhaq KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
- Ward Berenschot KITLV
- Adriaan Bedner Leiden University
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Anti-corporate activism in the Malaysian palm oil sector: A comparative perspective
Helena Varkkey University of Malaya
This presentation is a preliminary exploration of the possible fundamental differences in the nature of anti-corporate activism between the Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil sector. It focuses on Sarawak, which is the largest Malaysian state and also the state with the largest land area used for oil palm. Taking research that has been carried out by the convenors in Indonesia as a starting point, this presentation gathers secondary evidence on the main types of grievances faced by communities related to the sector in Sarawak, and offers preliminary observations on the outcomes of these conflicts. In Indonesia, while demonstrations are usually directed at local governments and tend to avoid formal mechanisms, this sems not to be the case in the Sarawak case study. Despite notable differences in the legal regime between the two countries, this case study finds that in Sarawak at least, similarly to Indonesia, conflicts are rarely investigated and conflict resolution is rarely successful. Similar factors can account for the lack of success, including issues of weak land tenure, systemic collusion among elites, contested community leadership, and the complex nature of conflicts. A more detailed systematic study is needed to understand anti-corporate activism in the Malaysian palm oil sector overall.
Collusion and Land Conflicts: The Contentious Politics of Palm Oil Expansion in Indonesia
Ahmad Dhiaulhaq KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Ward Berenschot KITLV
The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations has generated a large and growing number of anti-corporate protests against palm oil companies over, mainly, access to land. So far, these protests have been mainly studied through scattered case studies, which precludes an understanding and analysis of general patterns. To address this challenge, a research collaboration of Indonesian and Dutch academics and NGOs has used interviews as well as extensive collection of newspaper articles and reports to analyse the trajectories and outcomes of 150 conflicts between communities and palm oil companies. Drawing from this unique material, this article presents the general pattern of the anti-corporate activism sparked by the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations, including the causes, the character of protests and outcomes of these conflicts. We find that despite regular and intense protests, most communities failed to get remedy for their grievances. We argue that this limited success is not just due to the inadequacies of legal frameworks but also to the way in which Indonesia’s informalized state institutions foster collusion between powerholders and palm oil companies. Such collusion has facilitated the repression of protests and undermined conflict resolution mechanisms. In response, communities are engaging in particularly ‘rightless’ forms of collective action: instead of invoking legal provisions or rights, communities largely avoid formal institutions while adopting largely accommodative forms of protest aimed at improving their bargaining position vis-à-vis companies.
Corporate Contentious Politics: How Oil Palm Companies address community grievances in Indonesia
Otto Hospes Wageningen Univiversity and Research Centre
The intensification of corporate acquisition of community land over the last decades has generated widespread resistance from communities who feel that they are being forced off their land with little or no compensation. Yet while the contentious politics of communities has received ample scholarly attention, the conflict behaviour of companies is rarely studied. We contend that it is arbitrary to describe the behaviour of communities in terms of ‘contentious politics’, while using technical, more neutral sounding terms like CSR, ‘non-market strategies’ or ‘corporate political action’ for the behaviour of companies. On the basis of a detailed documentation of the trajectories and outcomes of 150 conflicts between palm oil companies and rural communities in Indonesia, we show that palm oil companies are also engaging in contentious politics, in the sense that companies - like communities - engage in conscious and strategic efforts to make and realize their claims, and for this purpose mobilize a particular contentious repertoire. We identify four common, recurring elements of the ‘corporate contentious politics’ adopted by palm oil companies in Indonesia: the co-optation of local leaders, the cultivation of connections with local authorities, the suppression of protests, and the criminalization of protest leaders. We employ our dataset of 150 conflicts to explore how common these strategies are, finding that companies more oriented to western markets are not less likely to employ them. We argue that corporate contentious politics is a response to the informalized nature of Indonesia’s state institutions, and call for more comparative research on this understudied dimension of corporate behaviour.
Plantations, conflicts, alternatives
Olaf Smedal University of Bergen, Norway
Many millions of Indonesian citizens have grown up on or nearby large-scale plantations in Java, Sumatra, Borneo and elsewhere. In colonial times, the sugar and coffee plantations in Java, the spice plantations in the Moluccas, and the rubber plantations in Sumatra (such as were established by Goodyear in 1916) have been iconic for this kind of monocropping. Since the 1980s, however, plantations in Indonesia have increasingly become synonymous with oil palm cultivation. This paper deals with two NES (plasma/nucleus) oil palm plantations in Central and Western Kalimantan respectively, established in the early 1990s, and a third located in Bangka (in the Bangka-Belitung or “BaBel” province) running a nucleus/cooperative scheme the beginnings of which go back to 2005. While there is a plethora of intricate economic, politico-historical and legal-administrative reasons for the innumerable conflicts marring the changes in land use that large-scale plantations entail, the modest aim of this paper is to compare the dynamics of the three aforementioned locations and tease out how the conflicts variously or in combination can be ascribed to (i) rogue capitalism, (ii) the nature of the scheme (NES vs. nucleus/plasma), (iii) transmigration, (iv) resistance and compliance, and (v) diverse interests among local populations – while briefly touching upon alternatives to plantations.
Contentious Courts: The adjudication of land conflicts in Indonesia
Daniel Peterson Leiden University
Under what conditions can courts function as a bulwark against land grabbing? In this article we study how Indonesia’s legal system deals with the conflicts between rural communities and palm oil companies sparked by the rapid expansion of plantations. Using a detailed documentation of eighteen court cases, we explore the legal strategies of communities, the frequency of appeals as well the nature of the final verdicts. We find that judges rarely rule on the merits of a case; rather, they adopt a strictly formalist approach to the law, which prioritises procedural correctness at the expense of substantive resolutions. In that light we argue that the primary obstacle to substantive judicial outcomes and resolutions in instances of land dispute litigation is not necessarily Indonesia’s uncertain land law regime; rather, it is the disconnect between the competencies of those lawyers representing communities in court and the excessively formalist expectations of the judiciary. A vicious cycle appears to be hampering legal development in Indonesia: as strict legal formalism and the uncertainty of Indonesia’s legal framework (and, sometimes, the temptation of bribes) encourage judges to rule on procedural grounds, and as lawyers’ drafting skills fail to meet the meticulous standards set by the courts, Indonesian land law jurisprudence is otherwise being denied a substantive body of jurisprudence that could gradually serve to clarify and fortify this legal framework.
Negotiations, Violence and Hope: Trajectories of Resistance against Oil Palm in East Kalimantan
Michaela Haug Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology
: At the centre of my proposed paper stands a Dayak Benuaq community of the Middle Mahakam Region of East Kalimantan, Indonesia, which was incorporated into Indonesia’s massive oil palm expansion during the mid-1990s and which since then has resisted the palm oil industry in very different ways. By exploring the community’s trajectory of change, which is characterized by ruptures and unexpected turns, I carve out distinct phases of the process of being incorporated in a palm oil based economy and different strategies and forms of resistance that grew out of these phases.
The first phase is marked by the arrival of an oil palm company in the area in 1996, land clearing for the establishment of three oil palm estates on village land and first cautious and finally violent resistance of the villagers. The second phase covers the period when palm oil production started in the plantations in 2003 and the villagers had no choice but to come to terms with the new situation while the majority of them worked there as day labourers. The third phase, finally, describes the situation in early 2017 in which the majority of the villagers had managed to free themselves (at least preliminary) from their dependency of the oil palm industry and lived again as independent smallholders.
Resisting the Oil Palm: Why Siberut has not been turned into an oil palm plantation
Darmanto Darmanto Leiden University
Since the early 1990s many companies and governmental agencies have tried to establish oil palm plantations on the island of Siberut (Mentawai Islands, West Sumatra). However, Siberut just like the other Mentawaian Islands is still a plantation-free area. Reviewing and analyzing the cases of the proposed plantations in recent decades, this paper identifies two main but connected factors contributing behind this surprising situation. First, the plantations have to compete with other proposed forms of land use (protected areas, logging concession, forest gardens) from various state agencies, corporations, and indigenous Mentawaians with different ideas and interests in controlling and using the island. Tussles and friction have always occurred, conjuring up alliances of opposition against oil palm initiatives. Second, the consistent and successful campaign against oil palm plantations from Mentawaian activists and local and national NGOs. In the 1990s, the Mentawaian activists have introduced and deployed the discourse of indigenous rights but recently using their positions as prominent political figures in the district to oppose the establishment of oil palm plantations. Our findings offer an interesting case in the vital discussion on the dynamics of various agencies within the Indonesian state and the intricate relations of activists, civil society, and local politics in the possibility of contesting the ever-growing oil palm expansion throughout the country.
Usage and Effectiveness of RSPO’s Conflict Resolution Mechanism: An Indonesian Case
Afrizal Afrizal Universitas Andalas
To resolve conflicts related to CPO production, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has established a conflict-resolution mechanism in 2009. Using the theories on shopping forum from agent-structure duality and power, this article analyses usage and evaluates effectiveness of the mechanism to resolve conflicts related to land acquisition for oil palm plantation development and explains its outcomes. We studied the use and outcomes of all the cases that resolution of conflict have been brought to the RSPO complaint system. To this end we employ both RSPO’s documentation, as well as our own detailed documentation of 16 cases that communities from four Indonesian provinces - Central Kalimantan, West Sumatra, and Riau – have brought to the RSPO. With this material we explore the character of the cases reported to the RSPO, the eventual outcomes, and barriers [and opportunities] for local communities to seek and find justice through the RSPO in conflicts with oil palm companies. We draw three conclusions: First, the RSPO mechanism is the last alternative villagers choose to resolve conflicts with oil palm plantation companies; Second, various complaints were administered by different category of claimants with outcomes benefit more oil palm companies; As inequality of power between villagers (claimants) and companies (respondents) seriously constrain villagers’ ability to access RSPO conflict resolution mechanism, reliance on structural power is a necessary for people to obtain benefit from it.
The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia is generating a large and growing number of conflicts between rural communities and palm oil companies over, mainly, access to land. Communities are protesting against both companies and governments, engaging in demonstrations, lobbying and litigation as well as road blockades, destruction of company’s property and violence. So far, these conflicts have been mainly studied through scattered
case studies, thereby precluding an understanding and comparative analysis of general patterns. To address this challenge, this double panel aims to bring together researchers working on the conflicts sparked by the expansion of agribusinesses across Southeast Asia. Some of the papers in this panel stem from a collaborative research project studying 150 such conflicts in Indonesia, while also including other papers to discuss not just the causes, character and outcomes of these conflicts, but also the role of the courts, the effectiveness of the RSPO, the contributions of NGO’s, informal mediation and the conflict strategies pursued by palm oil companies. By bringing together papers on diverse aspects of the contentious politics sparked by oil palm expansion, this panel aims to spark discussions about the character of civil society in Southeast Asia and the obstacles it faces in addressing the downsides of Southeast Asia’s economic development.