Supporting the rights of Indonesian communities living with palm oil

Header photo: Oil palm © Evelien van den Broek

Palm oil expansion in Indonesia is known to lead to problems such as deforestation and conflicts over land use. Certain problems also arise in the village of Salim Batu in North Kalimantan. Land belonging to the villagers is now in use by a large oil palm plantation. According to partner organization Sawit Watch and a local interest group, the villagers have not received sufficient compensation for this. Sawit Watch cooperates with the community and the local government to ensure that palm oil companies comply with regulations for the protection of population and nature.

Palm oil companies previously had the obligation to provide villagers with the necessary knowledge and technology to generate income by planting oil palm on the land surrounding their business concession. “This approach did not work well in practice,” says Karlo Lumban Raja, Head of Environmental and Public Awareness at Sawit Watch. That is why the Indonesian government made the palm oil companies responsible for the management of that part of the land that is intended for the local residents, the so-called ‘plasma plots’. They must allocate the net income of these plots to the owners of the land. “However, many companies do not fulfill this responsibility,” Lumban Raja states. “There are even accusations that this arrangement encourages land grabbing.”

“It is distressing to see that the local government wants to curb these kinds of abuses, but simply does not have the capacity,” says Jelmer Kamstra, senior policy officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The support from local civil society organizations such as Sawit Watch is therefore crucial. Sawit Watch cooperates with local communities and the local government to ensure that communities are fairly compensated for the use of their land. They support the community with legal advice to secure their rights. In addition, Sawit Watch collects valuable evidence that government and communities can act upon when palm oil companies do not adhere to the legal frameworks.

Evidence-based action

With the support of IUCN NL in the framework of the program Shared Resources Joint Solutions, Sawit Watch used drone technology to map the entire concession area in Salim Batu. “Amongst other things, the aerial pictures show the condition of the plasma plots intended for the villagers. Both for landowners and the local government this is valuable evidence to take action against abuses within the concession area,” says Karlo Lumban Raja. By collecting geographic information, the government is better able to check whether palm oil companies operate within the legal frameworks, so that their activities do not go at the expense of the rights of local residents and the ecosystems they depend upon.

Armed with this concrete proof, the government summoned the company by official letter to improve its operations. However, that does not entail an immediate improvement of the situation. “After receiving the letter, the company sold the concession to another party within the same holding,” Lumban Raja explains. “This means a delay in handling the complaint.”

Yet a silver lining can be seen. Aware of the value of geographical information, the local government has purchased its own drone. Thanks to the use of drones, they can control a much larger number of companies. Moreover, the aerial pictures provide irrefutable evidence of what is going wrong. The district of Bulungan in the province of North Kalimantan now has plans to map the entire district. Sawit Watch offers support and training for the officials involved.


“Thanks to the knowledge and technology that Sawit Watch brings to the table, despite its limited capacity, the government is able to systematically monitor a larger number of plantations,” Jelmer Kamstra explains. “In turn, the government can provide Sawit Watch access to plantations, which is not so obvious for an organization that stands up for the rights of local residents and the nature they depend upon.”

Evelien van den Broek
Senior Expert Environmental Justice