Palm oil fruits

Indonesia is not serious about resolving human rights violations in palm oil plantations

Human rights violations are all too common in the palm oil sector, from appropriating local communities’ land to unfair working conditions, child labour, violence, rape and other crimes.

As the Government of Indonesia looks to reform the country’s palm oil certification standard, our Indonesian partners Kaoem Telapak and JPIK report on the Government’s removal of the principle on human rights and question its resolve to tackling human rights issues.


Originally published in JPIK’s ‘The Monitor’ Newsletter, 12th Edition, April 2019

by Sarah Agustio, Kaoem Telapak

It has been almost three years since the process of redesigning the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification standard started. This redesign process is a policy issued by the Government of Indonesia (GoI) to strengthen the existing ISPO standard to improve palm oil plantation governance and sustainable development in Indonesia.

Palm oil firm bulldozer in Muara Tae, Indonesia, October 2012 (c) EIAimage

Initially, the strengthening process started openly through the ISPO Strengthening Team specifically formed by the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs. This team aims to make fundamental improvements to the existing certification and standardisation system for the palm oil industry.

After a series of discussions with various stakeholders, the team held a limited discussion in December 2016 attended by Government, academics, private sector/industry and civil society organisations. The results were agreed, with nine principles of ISPO certification standard and several clauses on the ISPO policy drafted.

One of those nine principles was to respect human rights. This principle is critical to ensure the protection, respect and fulfilment of human rights to strengthen Indonesia’s commitment to legally guarantee and maintain the rights of impacted communities who live and are active in palm oil plantation areas. Furthermore, high rates of human rights violation cases in palm oil plantations is one of the reasons this principle must be included in this certification system.

In this land-greedy and capital-intensive palm oil plantations industry, human rights problems are not only limited to encroachment but violence, criminalisation, shooting and intimidation. The human rights aspects are broad and fundamental. Human rights violations in palm oil plantations start when the Government issues business permits with minimum field verification. It results in a lack of information on existing communities and land productivity. In addition to that, the Government also does not give the right information to the communities on the issuance of plantation business permits around the area of communities’ activities.

Oil palm plantation in Indonesia (c) EIAimage

Since the redesign process started in January 2017, to date the Government seems to run away and forget its commitment – developed at the beginning of this policy reform – that the redesigning of the ISPO certification system would be participative, inclusive, transparent and accountable. Besides strengthening ISPO principles that have existed since 2011, this redesign was also expected to improve the process of making implementing regulations to strengthen governance.

However, the latest draft, because of the limited discussions with civil society, neglects the agreement on the nine standard principles. There are two principles missing from the most recent draft: respect for human rights; and traceability and transparency.

The biggest hope from this redesign process was that it would enable improvement of governance and encourage sustainable palm oil development, through prioritising the principle of respecting human rights. Instead, that principle has been erased from the main draft of the redesign document. It shows that there is no serious effort from the Government of Indonesia to really improve and fix the governance of sustainable development for the palm oil plantation sector – a sector that has steadily increased not just crude palm oil (CPO) production but also increased the intensity and number of agrarian conflicts and cases of violence.

The Consortium of Agrarian Reform has stated that palm oil is the sector contributing the highest level of agrarian conflicts in Indonesia. During 2018, there were 144 plantation conflicts, with 60 per cent (83 cases) happening inside palm oil plantations. The conflicts are mostly caused by land expansion (issuance of Land Use Rights or Hak Guna Usaha – HGU) or issuance of plantation permits that violate human rights over land and also overlap communities’ land rights with private or State-owned companies without any resolution.

Palm oil deforestation in Papua

Palm oil deforestation in Papua (c) EIAimage

Besides land conflict, violence, rape, child labour and violation of labour rights also often occur in palm oil plantations. In January and November 2018, teenagers were raped in palm oil plantations in Lembah Subur Village, Kerumutan Subdistrict, Palalawan District and in Antang Kalang Subdistrict, East Kotawaringin District.

Rural, isolated, within thousands of hectares from communities, palm oil plantation areas are often used as a place for violence and crime. Moreover, palm oil plantation workers often have their rights violated due to uncertain work status and information on work relations, limitations on freedom of association and low wages that are accepted by workers by compulsion.

The ISPO, which has applied since March 2011, has issued 457 certificates to 450 companies, three cooperatives and four plasma smallholder Village Unit Cooperatives, with the total certified area reaching 3,828,238 hectares. Total fresh fruit production is 49 million tonnes and CPO is 11 million tonnes. It means that 27.4 per cent of palm oil plantations in Indonesia out of a total of 14.03 million hectares have been ISPO-certified.

However, ISPO implementation has yet to respond to the negative impacts caused by palm oil development, especially the environmental and social aspects. In the palm oil plantation sector, we still find a lot of human rights violation cases happening, besides legality issues related to HGU and overlapping plantation business permits, and the management of peat ecosystems and high conservation value areas are still being neglected.

For eight years, ISPO is the main value used by the Government of Indonesia to market the best-selling vegetable oil (palm oil) as an export commodity. However, it has not been managed seriously.

If the Government is willing to improve palm oil plantation governance in Indonesia through the ISPO, then there must be a participative, inclusive, transparent and accountable ISPO redesign process, which includes the principles on human rights and transparency and traceability as basic ISPO principles.