Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Indignant villagers

Tuesday December 8, 2009 The Star, Malaysia

After being criticised for unsustainable practices in its operation in West Kalimantan in 2007, Wilmar International Ltd is correcting its mistakes.

The complaints against Wilmar resulted in the World Bank suspending funding in the oil palm sector in September, pending review of its procedures. The World Bank investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), was investing in Wilmar’s oil palm development in the controversial Sambas district in Kalimantan. An internal audit showed that IFC had violated its own investment guidelines in the scandal.

Wilmar, a multinational conglomerate with plantation and trading subsidiaries that handle a quarter of global palm oil production, settled the dispute by compensating over 1,000 villagers and returning 1,300ha of land. The outcome illustrated the potential and progress of RSPO’s sustainability standards in action. However, progressive cases such as this appear to be the exception. Disregard for RSPO standards continue to be registered particularly in Indonesia.

A Dayak community leader from Desa Kalian in the Sambas district claimed that a RSPO member indulged in a land grab and destroyed their source of livelihood.

“There was no consultation with us. They cut our forests and polluted our water sources. We want an agreement that clearly spells out the terms if we accept the project but we also want to be given a choice to reject it,” Petrus Atus told a press conference on the sideline of the RSPO meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesian villagers (from left) Petrus Atus of Desa Kalian, Sambas district, and Ngatimin Keling of northern Sumatra, detailing the frustration of their communities in battling oil palm companies that move into their lands.

Ngatimin Keling of Sumatra detailed the frustration of his community in fighting a company that recently received RSPO certification. “We had notified the certification body but we understand that the certifier is biased towards the company as it is hired by the company while RSPO’s monitoring ability is unsatisfactory,” he said.

In Sarawak, where a majority of the 200-odd land rights court cases involved oil palm development, affected communities have cried foul over the lack of commit­ment towards the principle of “prior informed consent” under RSPO.

Said Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita, an NGO member in RSPO: “Sarawak is aggressively entering into land development agreements with the private sector, particularly with plantation companies. In these agreements, 60% of Native Customary Right (NCR) land is given to the private company, 10% to the Land and Custody Development Authority and 30% to the indigenous community.”

She noted that under such schemes, communities who are also oil palm smallholders, end up being labourers on their own land with wages of RM15 per day.

“The indigenous peoples are also questioning why the government is not taking initiatives to develop NCR land according to what they want. Some have used their land for rice-growing, orchards and vegetable cultivation, earning them incomes which have been enough to to sustain themselves.”

She said companies are not engaging with the communities towards finding the best solutions which would also protect NCR land and the interests of the indigenous people.