By Dimas N. Hartono
from Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut

Many changes have occurred since the massive oil palm plantations expansion in Central Kalimantan that began in 1992, namely: the loss of community land and the decreasing indigenous/local community management space because these lands have been converted into a monoculture oil palm plantation. Rivers and lakes (waterways) are polluted by waste or converted into plantations. The inevitable result is a conflict between the company and the communities surrounding the plantation concessions.

Based on data issued by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) - Central Kalimantan, there were 345 conflicts related to the development and management of oil palm plantations between the local communities and the companies in Bumi Tambun Bungai in the last two decades. From an economic and individual perspective, the oil palm conflict is significantly detrimental to the local communities because they are oftentimes the victims and they have to defend their territory to avoid displacement.

Therefore, questions arise, what is the general characteristic of the Central Kalimantan oil palm conflict? What efforts have been carried out to resolve it? And how effective are the conflict resolution efforts?


In early December 2020, the Conflict Resolution Research Report, which was written by a team of 19 researchers and supported by non-governmental organizations in West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, Riau, Jambi, as well as academicians from Andalas University, Wageningen University, and KITLV Leiden (since May 2019), attempts to answer these questions by analyzing the trajectories and outcomes of the 45 conflicts. The research is carried out on the conflict resolution in the oil palm sector, the effectiveness of existing mechanisms in resolving these conflicts, and the achieved results or outcomes.


The findings indicate that the most common complaints were triggered by oil palm plantation expansion, i.e. land grabbing, which was related to the way the company obtained (or did not obtain) prior approval from local communities during the land acquisition process. Moreover, the profit-sharing schemes often lead to conflict due to inadequate (plasma) profit sharing. This complaint basically comes in three forms: 

  1. Some companies do not provide the plasma land as promised, 
  2. Plasma land is provided, but the portion of profit distributed to the community is too small or no profit is shared with the community. 
  3. The cooperative that was established to manage the plasma scheme did not function properly because the community members managing the cooperative are not transparently sharing the profits with their members.

The research also shows that the community adopts a variety of protest strategies in voicing their complaints and managing conflicts with palm oil companies. These strategies range from confrontational to accommodating strategies. The total number of protests in Central Kalimantan reached 225 protests. The people in Central Kalimantan are also more likely to use a confrontational protest strategy, such as demonstrations (which reached 69 percent of the total cases) and land occupations or blockades which accounted for 56 percent of the total cases. In addition, the Central Kalimantan Dayak people have a distinctive type of protest known as the traditional hinting pali ritual. In this ritual, the tribal chief or damang will install a customary portal or hinting which is used to close the location of the customary land that is under dispute.

Communities also engaged local authorities to hold hearings, where they asked for support (62 percent of cases). An interesting finding is that the communities often direct their actions towards the local governments rather than to the companies.

Most of them initially tried to directly negotiate with the company, but the company often did not respond. As a result, the community held demonstrations in front of the district government office or local parliament (DPRD). In other words, the most common community strategy is to try to question the local government’s decision in issuing plantation permits and seeking government support in resolving the conflicts and putting more pressure on companies.

The people in Central Kalimantan facing conflict with plantation companies generally avoid open confrontation with the companies or the government.

This usually leads to the criminalization of the protest leaders, such as the case in the Laman Kinipan village with the latest victim being Efendi Buhing and associates or the case of James Watt and associates, who were also turned in to police ​​because they were suspected of theft for harvesting from community land, which is also a part of a plantation concession area. This certainly shows the lack of protection provided by local authorities for the community to rightly voice their complaints. Last but not least, the government and law enforcement (police) are often viewed to favor the investors’ interests than the indigenous peoples’ struggles.

Observing similar conflict patterns in several areas in Central Kalimantan, appropriate strategies and mechanisms so such conflicts do not drag on without reaching a resolution. Formal conflict resolution mechanisms are rarely used.

People often express distrust of the courts. In addition, the perceived cost and complexity of the court procedures are also viewed as obstacles. Another reason is that Indonesian law still limits land ownership for rural communities, although formal evidence of ownership is crucial for winning land ownership-related cases in court. The lack of opportunity in obtaining land certificates discourages rural communities from filing complaints about their land to the court.

Findings show that in 76 percent of conflicts in Central Kalimantan, people often rely on mediation or facilitation to reach a solution because it is more practical and cost-efficient. In practice, there are several types of mediation and facilitation, but the most common case is a meeting facilitated by the politicians and bureaucrats in the DPRD between the company representatives and the community to try and reach a compromise between the two parties. Unfortunately, although this mechanism appears to be the easiest and most frequently used, facilitation efforts by the local authorities are often less successful.

In 29 percent of the conflict cases in Central Kalimantan, community representatives reported that they had received nothing and in 42 percent of the cases they perceived that they had received almost no progress, only receiving small gifts as a symbolic sign of the company's goodwill, such as hiring local residents who are not directly related to the main claims from the community. In other words, in 32 cases (71 percent) of the 45 conflicts studied, communities failed to (or barely) successfully resolved their grievances. This finding indicates that the three main conflict resolution mechanisms, i.e. the courts, the RSPO complaints system, and facilitation by the local authorities are still ineffective.

The main reasons why local authorities often fail to resolve these conflicts are the lack of a systematic method; the lack of capacity and commitment from the local authorities to perform the mediation; and the lack of sanctions for uncooperative companies, as well as the lack of representation and leadership in the community.

In practice, most of the existing conflict resolution mechanisms have not been effective in resolving oil palm conflicts, referring to a study conducted on 150 conflict cases to provide a number of policy recommendations on how conflict can be prevented, and how to make the conflict resolution efforts more effective.

Therefore, the process of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) from the community needs to be improved as it has not been done properly so far. Local governments need to better monitor the implementation of the nucleus-plasma cooperation scheme.

A large number of conflicts (60 percent of the total) involving complaints about the scheme arise because the company did not fulfill their promise to establish plasma plantations for the community, because they do not pay (or only pay a small amount) of the profit-sharing from the scheme, or because the plasma scheme management (through cooperatives) is not very transparent. Moreover, the implementation of the plasma scheme is not strictly monitored.

Conflict resolution requires a more comprehensive procedure and training to increase the local government's capacity in resolving conflicts. A more professional law enforcement that is free from business actors’ informal pressure and a government that has the courage to penalize uncooperative companies that have been proven to commit violations. (*)

*The author is the Director of Walhi Central Kalimantan and the Coordinator of Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut - Central Kalimantan Peat


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