Indonesia and EU negotiate on free trade agreement - NGOs demand Palm oil to be excluded from trade

The Indonesian Government is negotiating with the European Union (EU) on the free trade agreement CEPA. The palm oil trade seems to be among the most dominating topics during the talks. Indonesia produces well over half of the world's palm oil, and the EU is the main consumer after India. Indonesian organizations call for the exclusion of palm oil from the agreements. Palm oil is the major cause of high greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia. In addition, the presence of plam oil plantations is often accompanied by empoverishment of local communities and landgrabbing. Conflicts over land frequently escalate because the private companies are backed up by the police.

In 2015, after month-long forest fires with extremely high smoke levels, the Indonesian government has identified dozens of companies responsible for millions of hectares of burnt forest and peat land. Only the palm oil company RKK - a plantation company of the Makin Group – has been prosecuted for the arson. RKK is a supplier to Unilever, the pioneer of sustainable palm oil. This is is only one of many examples which shows that palm oil production can never be fully sustainable.

Environmental activists fear that the CEPA agreement could result in an increase of national palm oil production due to growing demands in European markets. This means further deforestation of primary rain forest areas and increase of conflicts over land with local communities. It is estimated that biofuel strongly contributes to global warming. A research commissioned by the EU concludes that biodiesel from palm oil causes three times as many climate-damaging emissions as diesel from fossil oil.  Palm oil companies need to clear vast areas of land for their plantations – many of these areas are forest areas and are located on peat land. The emissions from the smoldering peat soils cause an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe every year. While primary rain forests in most parts of Indonesia have been severely damaged by logging and agricultural development, West Papua remains one of the “strongholds” for the last primary rain forests in Indonesia, but the protected areas are quickly shrinking. In 2010 there were just nine operational palm oil plantations and by 2015 the number increased to 28. In 2016, government figures show that the total number of granted permits for palm oil plantations in the two Papuan provinces had increased to 83. These figures do not include mining or logging concessions which also significantly contribute to the destruction of rain forests in West Papua.

The establishment of palm oil plantations does not only result in severe damage of rain forests but also caused social conflicts in many islands of Indonesia. Kalimantan and Sumatra have experienced massive land grabs, where the government has implemented large scale agricultural projects, mainly palm oil plantations. Both islands are strongly affected by land rights issues because local governments approve concessions in inhabited areas.  A similar development takes place in West Papua. Major issues in relation to palm oil companies are broken promises, fraud, as well as inadequate compensation payments for land. Indigenous land rights are frequently ignored during the establishment of new plantations. Among the most important stakeholders in terms of land grabbing are the police and military. Both state institutions often play an additional role as security personnel for private companies.

In the provinces of Papua and Papua Barat, where almost half of the population consists of indigenous peoples, the expansion of palm oil industries had severe impacts on indigenous communities. The conversion of forest areas into palm oil plantations or logging areas has led to the destruction of local livestock while causing impoverishment among indigenous communities. This situation has forced affected indigenous peoples to apply for jobs in companies, where they mostly work as temporary day laborers. The income as laborer on plantations is often not enough to cover indigenous families’ basic living expenses if they no longer have access to traditional food sources. In several cases, plantation companies have promised to set aside sago groves from plantation development, but have later gone on to clear them, or have failed to leave a buffer zone to protect the sago trees. Testimonies from local people indicate that sago stocks and other sources of food are becoming increasingly scarce near plantations. Accounts of difficulties finding animals to hunt are common.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Ms. Hilal Elver, has recently visited Indonesia. In her end of mission statement, the special rapporteur warned that business activities, especially businesses relating to palm oil, mining and other plantations pose a threat to the right to food of many communities. They have considerable impact on the right to food due to deforestation, soil degradation, conflicts as well as the use of toxic fertilizers have an influence on the right to food.