Indonesia’s oil palm plantations need land to expand, putting forests and old lifestyles at risk – app/digital magazine available here (subscription required) – broadcast on August 24

Mardiana Deren speaking on Bali in early August (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Mardiana Deren speaking on Bali in early August (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

UBUD – Every morning, Mardiana Deren wakes up before dawn. After a quick breakfast, she allots an hour or so to tapping rubber trees near her home, before giving hours to the ill and the injured as part of her day job as a nurse.

Only then can she turn to the vocation that has made her a target for assassination.

“Evening time is activism time,” she said, describing her typical day to a group of like-minded women – and a smattering of men – who convened on the Indonesian island of Bali recently for a “Summit on Women and Climate.” The event was organised by the Global Greengrants Fund, which finances organizations, often small, that are trying to protect habitats in remote areas.

Mardiana is a Dayak from Borneo, a vast and jungle-covered island, most of which is part of Indonesia. In recent years, she has been in the thick of clashes between local peoples – including some of the estimated 2-4 million Dayak – and companies hoping to grow palm oil.

Palm oils are indigenous to West Africa, but have flourished in the tropical environs of Southeast Asia. Nowadays, Indonesia and Malaysia together produce the bulk of what is the world’s cheapest vegetable oil – used in a vast array of household goods such as soap, cosmetics and many food products.

Palm oil is an important part of Indonesia’s resource-rich economy, equal to 11% of Indonesia’s export earnings in 2012. It is estimated that around 3.5 million people work on the plantation in Indonesia, which supplies around half of a world market that has doubled in the last decade. Indonesia aims to increase palm oil production from 20 million tonnes per year in 2009 to 40 million tonnes by 2020.

But Mardiana’s efforts to curb the spread of oil palm planting prompted two attempts on her life: one by machete-wielding thugs, one by a careening motorbike aimed right at her.

Narrow escapes have only hardened Mardiana’s opposition to what she sees as the destruction of forests traditionally inhabited by Dayaks. Hers is a dual creed: a belief that the environment is sacrosanct and a conviction that the operations of mining companies, loggers and planters undermine the long established local political economy.

“The forest is sacred, even the rocks,” she said, pointing to a skirt made of local tree bark. Around her crown sat a traditional Dayak feathered headdress.

The sartorial touches, she hoped, would better explain the sacral side of her campaign. Though many Dayak are Christian, some of their old beliefs still resonate. “We know there is a forest guardian, a water guardian,” Mardiana insisted – underlining how razing forests or polluting water amounts to a cultural taboo.

But the old ways of life in Dayak lands, so esoteric to outsiders, have long been under pressure. After Indonesian independence in 1945, the government’s transmigration program saw millions of Javanese and Madurese move to Borneo, eventually leading to deadly conflict in the late 1990s.

In that conflict, the Dayak gave at least as good as they got, if not more – in some cases reviving the group’s fearsome old headhunting practices, which hadn’t been seen since they were used on the invading Japanese during World War II.

Since the 1970s, Indonesia’s rise to the top of the world’s list of palm oil producers has seen further encroachments into traditional ways of life. Around 5 per cent of Indonesia’s land is now covered in oil palm, the majority on Sumatra, but with a growing proportion on Borneo.

So some Dayak, and representatives of other peoples native to Borneo – known as Kalimantan in Indonesia – say that the state and companies have colluded to undermine entitlements.

“The palm oil plantations created havoc with [our]…rights,” said Mardiana. If companies want to plant oil palm on Dayak land, the usual modus operandi, she said, is to bribe local officials.

“Usually the government steps in and bribes village heads,” Mardiana claimed. “If you buy the village head, you buy the village.”

In the years following Indonesia’s 1998 transition to democracy, many aspects of central government control were decentralised to the regions. But regardless, according to Minority Rights Group International, a London-based organisation, some Dayaks cannot “legally protect their traditional land uses and ownership from logging, mining and plantation activities supported by state authorities.”

Growing anger about the impact of oil palm on forests prompted the setting up of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. The RSPO maintains a certification standard for operations that both respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities living on the land affected by plantations and also conserve lands and forests with high conservation value.

“So much effort has been invested in the RSPO and the International Finance Corporation’s dispute resolution mechanisms, but to little avail,” said Jefri Saragih, Executive Director of Sawit Watch – an Indonesian non-governmental organization (NGO) – when launching a damning report on the RSPO published last year.

A 2011 “forest moratorium” – a government plan to restrict the issuance of new permits for land development in protected forest and peat lands for two years – has not helped much either, it seems.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, commercial palm oil companies and smallholder farmers continued to add to the area under oil palm cultivation, “with the total area estimated to have grown an average 630,000 hectares per annum between 2011 and 2013,” up from around 500,000 hectares per annum over the previous 10 years, the USDA reported.

The authors of a recent report by the University of Maryland calculated that Indonesia lost an area of forest almost as large as Ireland from 2000 to 2012, partly to make way for palm oil plantations.

“By 2012, annual primary forest loss in Indonesia was estimated to be higher than in Brazil,” the report said, comparing Indonesia’s forest destruction with that in the Amazon River basin.

“We need to increase the law enforcement, the control in the area itself,” said Belinda Margono, lead author of the study and an official at the Indonesian forestry ministry

But Jakarta and palm oil-dependent industries see the world’s growing demand for palm oil as an economic opportunity. The Indonesian parliament is set to vote on a draft law on restricting foreign ownership of plantations to 30% – an attempt to keep more of the palm oil proceeds in the country.

A ruling by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court last year upheld indigenous people’s rights to forest – but parliament has yet to enact legislation around this.

Is parliament the answer? Land rights and indigenous peoples’ activists, such as the well-known Mollo protestor “Mama” Aleta Baun, were elected to regional assemblies in the 2014 legislative elections, held in April.

Mardiana, however, doesn’t think politics can stem the destruction of Dayak forests. She said she was asked to run for election, but turned down the request, because she is a civil servant.

Election candidates in Indonesia are often dependent on local business for campaign funding, which gives the corporate contenders an advantage over rivals with less money. And, of course, once the business client’s representative makes it to parliament, he or she is beholden to whoever funded the campaign, a vicious circle that makes Indonesia’s democracy look sometimes more like a bidding war.

“I need a lot of money to stand,” Mardiana explained, despondent about the prospects of finding allies in parliament to support her cause.

“I have not found any candidate who could be a sympathiser and not sure I would find any,” she said, when asked by The Edge Review if she would be lobbying local or national lawmakers about Dayak land rights.

Moreover, given that Indonesia’s hyperactive anti-corruption commission has in recent years gone after colluding officials and palm oil industry players, the parliament might not even be the best forum for action, Mardiana feels.

“Becoming an MP might not help solve a problem which is about reclaiming land,” she said.

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