Thursday, 5 June 2008

Using human rights to combat palm oil's hazards

Jakarta Post 27th May

Using human rights to combat palm oil's hazards

Irene Hadiprayitno, Utrecht

The palm oil industry is not only popular in the discourse of biofuels, but it is also economically lucrative.

In Indonesia alone the industry covers 17 provinces, employing about 2 million workers. The industry has generated an income amounting to Rp 7.779 million.

However, while examining the situation at the grassroots level, the effect is to the contrary, rather than improving it is victimizing.

Millions of hectares of tropical forests have been burned to make way for oil palm plantations; an annual haze is being experienced by people living in the vicinity. According to Sawit Watch, Indonesia has increased its palm estates to 7.3 million hectares and is planning to expand the area by a further 20 million hectares -- an area the size of England, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.

Moreover, the industry is also notoriously known as the cause of local conflicts. In January 2008, Sawit Watch monitored 513 conflicts between communities and companies. Some of these conflicts can be traced back to earlier land disputes.

Mostly, they are over land rights, but other disputes arise over compensation, unmet promises and smallholding arrangements.
The industry has also caused displacement, homelessness and morbidity. In Aceh, 360,000 people were displaced from their homes and 70 died as a result of floods in 2006, which have been a common problem in the region since oil palm plantations arrived.

At the grassroots level, regardless of how important the palm oil is for biodiesel production, the rising price does not affect peasants' income. Their salaries remain determined by the regional minimum wage scheme. In the case of North Barito, Central Kalimantan, one of the prominent palm oil plantations, it is only Rp. 876,536, an unreasonable amount compared to the selling price of crude palm oil, which was US$1135 per metric ton on Jan. 15, 2008.

Ideally, development should imply a structural improvement to people's ability to sustain their daily livelihoods. Indeed, not only are economies to be uplifted, but the people themselves.

Thus, both living standards and capabilities of those living at the grassroots should increase.

When designing a policy, a primary concern should be how to protect those affected by the consequences and, in particular, how to secure their entitlements within the execution of development policies. It is here we touch upon internationally accepted human rights standards and procedures.

Human rights pertaining to each and every human being constitutes a necessity for protecting people against hazards.

When combating hazards caused by the palm oil industry, one can refer to the United Nations' Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the General Assembly in 1986. The declaration defines the right to development as an inalienable human right by virtue. Accordingly, every human and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development so that all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

Obviously, development is seen here as a process that encompasses economic, social, cultural and political aspects. This implies a structural uplifting of welfare and well-being, affecting not just infrastructure, but also human beings.

The declaration regards those affected by development policies as right-holders who have to be protected against losing their entitlements, a common situation in development hazards.

Accordingly, the right to development requires adopting favorable measures for development beneficiaries in the development process and for development victims to seek claims for compensation from development hazards.

The Indonesian government is responsible for implementing the right to development. However, rather than eradicating the hazard, they continues to comply with other interests rather than people. There are no appropriate measures allocated to deal with homelessness, degradation of health, morbidity or social conflict.

Instead the government recently adopted a forestry law, which provides a broad license for companies to exploit protected forests as long as they are willing to pay annual rental fees ranging between Rp 1.2 million (US$125) and Rp 3 million per hectare.

Notably, the law prioritizes companies over people, who are now more vulnerable to development hazards.

In the case of the palm oil industry, the Indonesian government not only denies access to compensation, but also fails to protect and respect peoples' entitlements by not taking actions to eradicate the hazards and adopting disincentive regulations.

Using human rights to combat hazards caused by the palm oil industry entails protecting people during the process and ensuring fairness in development distribution. From the peoples' perspective, this grants opportunities for legitimate claims addressing correlated obligations or duties. Thus, it stresses the opportunity to seek remedies and compensation in the case of development hazards.

The writer is a PhD Candidate at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, Utrecht University, writing on the topic of the right to development.