On 27 February, Indra Pelani, a 22-year-old farmer and environmental defender from Jambi, Indonesia, was traveling to a harvest festival when he was brutally murdered by the security force of PT WKS (Wirakarya Sakti), a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper, an Indonesian company with a long history of conflict in the region.
Pelani, a member of the Tebo Farmers’ Union, was travelling with Nick Karim of the Jambi branch of WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia, when he was attacked, brutally beaten and killed. The seven guards suspected in the killing surrendered to police a few days later.
“This appears to be a pre-meditated, brutal murder,” said Riko Kurniawan, Executive Director of Walhi / Friends of the Earth Riau. Pelani’s community had been engaged in a decade-long conflict with WKS over the ownership of 2,000 hectares of farmland. “We hope that justice is done this time,” Kurniawan added, “unlike 2010 and 2012 cases in which two farmers were killed under similar circumstances arising from social conflicts with APP suppliers in Jambi and Riau.”
The murder comes on the heels of APP’s efforts to reverse its reputation as one of the world’s most notorious tropical deforesters. The company is one of many in the sector to have issued a zero-deforestation Forest Conservation Policy in 2013, and is a signatory to the New York Declaration on Forests, a pledge from companies, governments and NGOs to cut deforestation in half by 2020.
Friends of the Earth International sent a letter to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo asking for swift and positive action to bring Pelani’s killers to justice and prevent future violence by APP. Another open letter is being circulated by Walhi Jambi, asking for immediate prosecution of all actors involved in the crime.
This incident is just the latest in a long string of killings associated with forest exploitation; but the violence takes other forms as well.
In the Kalangala Islands of Uganda, Magdalena Nakamya is one of hundreds of smallholder farmers who have been evicted from their lands due to palm oil plantations. One morning July 2011, Nakamya, 64, woke to find machines churning up her land and razing her crops.
“No one came to talk to me before they destroyed my crops,” Nakamya told the UK Guardian in an article published earlier this month.
Nakamya is among hundreds of Ugandan farmers who filed a lawsuit last month against a palm oil joint venture co-owned by industry giant Wilmar International. Like APP, Wilmar was among the first global palm oil traders to commit to No Deforestation and No Exploitation following years of campaigning by environmental groups.
With the support of Friends of the Earth Uganda, hundreds of dispossessed farmers are demanding restitution and fair compensation for damages, three years after their land was taken for plantation development.
John Muyiisa, one of the plaintiffs, said, “When I lost that land, I did not only lose my livelihood, I also lost my pension and a secured income for my children and grandchildren. I did all I could to get the land back — I even went to the office of the president of Uganda. Now I am looking to the court to provide us with justice.”
In its response to charges of wrong-doing, Wilmar points out that the process of purchasing the land was the responsibility of the Ugandan government, not the company. “No one had been evicted for the project,” Wilmar told the Guardian.
Muyiisa and Nakamya, it seems, would beg to differ with Wilmar’s assessment. And, while the company seeks to shift the responsibility to the Ugandan government, and the government claims that it followed all legal requirements, the fact remains that hundreds of farmers have been displaced from their lands by a palm oil project that claims to respect human rights and both parties — the company and the government — bear the responsibility.
In February, Wilmar launched a “Sustainability Dashboard” to provide information on its progress toward sustainability — a move that its developers at The Forest Trust are hailing as a step into the light for an industry that has long profited from a total lack of transparency. While the initiative is a major step forward towards opening palm oil supply chains to much-needed scrutiny and regulation, the web-based platform is only in English — not the primary language spoken in palm oil producing regions — and thus far lacks information on land acquisitions for oil palm plantations such as that in Uganda.
As an effort to bring about better regulation of the sector by governments, there is no doubt that Wilmar’s ‘dashboard’ is of great use; but no one should be misguided into believing that farmers made landless by palm oil projects, like John Muyiisa and Magdalena Nakamya, find any succor in the effort.
“Companies operating in the global south and their financiers are still freely allowed to police themselves,” Sam Lowe of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland wrote last week in the UK Guardian. Giving a clear-eyed assessment of the Ugandan landgrab, Lowe argues that “self-regulation has failed.”
If there is anything to be learned from the ongoing attacks on environmental defenders like Indra Pelani and the forced displacement of communities in Uganda, it is that, no matter how much industry groups tout their commitments to improve their practices, these commitments need to be reinforced by government regulation and accountability.
As Mina Setra of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago in Indonesia said at a February land rights conference hosted by Rights and Resources Initiative: “Zero deforestation commitments have to come along with zero evictions, zero criminalizations and zero killings. We cannot start talking about stopping deforestation while we keep killing the people who are actually doing it on the ground.”