As a long-running conflict between a palm oil company and local community in Indonesia ends in a fatality, we look at who is buying the company’s palm oil and question why they have not acted before.
On 7 October 2023, local police in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan shot dead an indigenous Dayak community member and critically injured two others as they protested against a palm oil company.
Twenty other community members were arrested during the incident in Bangkal village.
The killing of the man named as Gijik and the actions and brutality of the police have widely been condemned by civil society organisations in Indonesia, including by our partner Kaoem Telapak, and EIA UK echoes their condemnation.
The conflict relates to the actions of the company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP), part of the BEST Group. The company has failed to allocate land to the community for plantations (known as ‘plasma’) as legally required, something it has promised to do since 2013.
In addition, the company has reportedly illegally planted 1,175 hectares of the community’s customary land outside of the area for which it has permits.
The conflict with PT HMBP is not new. There has been a dispute over the land for many years and the Indonesian authorities have been urged once more to resolve the conflict, including taking steps to ensure the company complies with all regulations and respects the rights of the community.
Meanwhile, the Dayak people have called for the local police chief to be suspended, among other demands including an examination into who funded the police’s actions and an investigation into the alleged illegal land control.
There is also other players here which need be held accountable – those buying PT HMBP’s palm oil. As long as companies continue to buy without scrutiny, the company will continue to operate with impunity to the law and in continued conflict with local communities.
We have identified the following companies as sourcing palm oil from PT HMBP, based on their latest publicly available mill lists:
- Barry Callebaut – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of chocolate and cocoa products, headquartered in Switzerland
- Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC) – one of the biggest agricultural traders globally, headquartered in the Netherlands
- Upfield – a large food company, known for brands such as Flora, headquartered in the Netherlands.
EIA UK has contacted these companies, alerting them to the latest events. Upfield confirmed PT HMBP is an indirect supplier and said it has suspended the BEST group and is investigating. Likewise, LDC confirmed it has suspended sourcing and is also investigating, commenting that it had internally profiled the BEST Group as high risk for other issues. Barry Callebaut stated PT HMBP has not actually entered its supply chain and was only listed as a possible supplier.
However, it is surprising, to say the least, that their mills lists included PT HMBP at all, given that the conflict has been going on for years.
All the buyer companies have sustainable palm oil policies that commit them to respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and this includes protection from violence and threats. PT HMBP should have been flagged as being in non-compliance with these standards long before now.
PT HMBP is no stranger to controversy. In 2020, it filed a criminal complaint which led to three community members being arrested for stealing oil palm fruits from its land, even though the land in question had been declared to be illegally planted by PT HMBP by the district chief and the company ordered to hand it back to the community.
However, the company did not return it and subsequently had the villagers arrested for harvesting the fruit there. Two residents were sentenced to eight and 10 months in prison, respectively, while the other died in custody.
In 2016, PT HMBP also featured in a major report by Amnesty International for using having child labour, imposing unreasonable working hours and not complying with minimum wage requirements.
Many other palm oil buyers, including Wilmar and Unilever, had already dropped PT HMBP and the wider BEST Group. There can be little doubt that other companies are still buying from PT HMBP, but do not disclose it publicly.
Buying from companies such as PT HMBP will also risk breaching the new EU Deforestation Regulation that will apply from of 30 December 2024 because the regulation requires palm oil placed on the EU marketplace to be produced legally.
The UK has passed similar legislation which will mean palm oil used by companies in the UK must be legally produced.
It should not have taken the loss of a life for sourcing companies to act. The long-running conflict and other unscrupulous practices should have been a big enough red flag.
The fact that this latest protest has resulted in the loss of a life of an indigenous community member is deeply saddening – and was totally avoidable.