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Palm Oil Is in Everything from Soap to Waffles -- And Causing Massive Human Suffering and Environmental Harm

Here is what some communities are doing to fight back.

Photo Credit: David Gilbert


Early one morning last April, after a long night of impassioned discussion, Jamaludin, a rice farmer from the Indonesian village of Semunying Jaya on the island of Borneo, rallied a handful of his neighbors to walk to a nearby road built by the palm oil company Duta Palma and, in a simple act of defiance, sit down.

The group’s intent was to stop the flow of traffic between the palm oil plantation, which had been carved from the surrounding rainforest that the villagers call their home, and its buyers across the nearby border, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It did not take long for the first truck to stop. Soon, trucks carrying palm oil fruits to Malaysia and trucks hauling fertilizers and insecticides from the other direction were parked in long lines along the road.

After four hours of blocked traffic, eight military men showed up to talk to Jamaludin and his neighbors. They did not wear uniforms, but military IDs hung around their necks and a few had assault rifles strapped behind their backs. The officials asked the villagers to stand up. The group refused. Then, to the protesters’ great surprise, the military left.

The unexpected success emboldened hundreds of others from Semunying Jaya to join the blockade. As dusk set in over the farms and forests, villagers managed to hot-wire two bulldozers and drive them to the front gates of the plantation manager’s office, sealing off the empty compound. Settling in for the first night of their occupation of the Duta Palma plantation, the villagers from Semunying Jaya were mostly silent, worried about the response from the plantation staff, private security, and Indonesian police. They had every reason to be anxious. Conflicts between palm plantation owners and farmers and foresters in Borneo and Sumatra have intensified as palm cultivation spreads across the equatorial archipelago. Subsistence farmers see the expansion of industrial agriculture as a threat to their cultural and economic survival, and when they resist clashes with political and military forces often occur. Sometimes the conflicts result in violence. Since 2004, according to a member of Indonesia’s legislature, at least 180 people have died in palm oil-related violence in Indonesia. In 2011 alone, 22 people were killed.

As night deepened, the occupiers of the road inside the Duta Palma plantation waited for the crackdown they were sure was to come with morning.

I met Jamaludin in July 2009, when I visited Semunying Jaya while documenting the expansion of palm oil for  Rainforest Action Network. As I made my approach up the Kumbu River by motorized canoe, the 60 or some homes of the village were silhouetted against a backdrop of forested mountains. A wood plank led the way from the riverbank to Jamaludin’s two-room, wood-walled and cement-floored home. Jamaludin (who, like most Indonesians, uses only one name) is a barrel-chested man with cropped hair who almost always wears a serious expression under his heavy brow. Like almost everyone in Semunying Jaya, he is Dayak, an Indigenous group in Borneo. As soon as I arrived, he opened a manila envelope of newspaper clippings and photographs. The moldy papers and blurry photos recounted the 2005 arrival of agribusiness firm Duta Palma, and, from that point on, a long story of environmental destruction, community resistance, and state and corporate persecution.

“When the company arrived they told us they were going to build a road,” Jamaludin told me. Townspeople welcomed the development. A road would allow them to sell at market the game, fruits, tree resins, and medicinal plants they gathered from the rainforests around Semunying Jaya. A road would also improve the villagers’ access to schools and hospitals. But the promise was a ploy. When the bulldozers arrived, they began clearing the rainforest for a palm oil plantation. Duta Palma is owned by one of Indonesia’s most powerful businessmen, and the company had secured a permit from the provincial government to clear 30,000 acres of forest. The road that had been promised was primarily designed to move palm harvests from the new plantation.

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