Indonesia for Sale is a six-part collaboration between the Mongabay environmental science and conservation news and information site and The Gecko Project, an investigative reporting initiative established by UK-based nonprofit Earthsight. The series is the product of nine months’ reporting, interviewing fixers, middlemen, lawyers and companies involved in land deals, and those most affected by them.
One night during Darwan’s second term, a farmer named Marjuansyah, who lived in the village the bupati had grown up in, had an unsettling encounter with the police. For two years he had nursed a small patch of oil palm east of Lake Sembuluh, and hundreds of saplings were now close to bearing fruit. But his land also fell within an area licensed to one of the companies Darwan’s son Ruswandi had sold to Triputra.
The police told Marjuansyah that they had come on company business. Triputra, they said, would pay him Rp5 million, around US$550, for each of his nine hectares. The cash would not last long, while the palms he had cultivated could provide him an income for the rest of his life, a security net as he entered old age. He did not want to sell, but felt uneasy about refusing a firm whose approach had been made through the police. Hoping to put them off the trail, he later told them he could accept no less than twice what they were offering.
Instead, he told us, Triputra found other people to stake a false claim to his land, and paid them for it. Pliant local officials vouched for the transaction. The company ran bulldozers over his farm — smallholder oil palm is typically inferior to corporate-grown trees — and demolished a cottage he had built. “I reported it to the police,” Marjuansyah told us at a friend’s home in the village, clutching a blurry photo of his former dwelling. “But there was no reaction.”
Marjuansyah displays a picture of the destroyed hut.
A similar fate befell many of the people of Seruyan as plantation firms advanced through their farmlands and the surrounding forests. It was not uncommon for the companies to offer some money for their land, presumably in the hope of heading off resistance. But it was not, as Marjuansyah found, a negotiation, and there was little option to refuse.
The farmers were at a disadvantage because the state did not recognize their land rights. Some had certificates issued by village chiefs but these were legally precarious compared to the companies’ state-sanctioned licenses. As Marjuansyah also found, they could be forged or manipulated. Many land claims were overlapping, a situation that had not troubled village life when there was no commercial pressure on land, and they could be resolved through customary law. When the companies arrived, they ignited and exploited these disputes, buying land from whomever would sell it first.
The presence of the police in negotiating with Marjuansyah was not an isolated incident. In other cases, they took a clear and partial position in protecting the companies’ interests. A farmer named Wardian bin Junaidi told us how Triputra’s same subsidiary tore down his rambutan and durian fruit trees. His appeals to the company were ignored.
Wardian bin Junaidi went to jail for stealing fruit from a Triputra plantation.
“I got fed up with continually petitioning them,” he said. “So one day I went and harvested some of that palm fruit myself.” He was arrested and imprisoned for several months. “I was accused of stealing. Really, those people are the thieves. But the law is selective. It’s not for us poor people. It’s the companies that have the money.”
From the earliest days of Indonesia’s palm oil industry, the government had sought to strike a balance between ceding land to large companies capable of developing viable plantations, and ensuring that nearby communities benefited. Through the 1980s and 1990s it experimented with various models, involving both the state and private sector. Most commonly, firms were required to equip local farmers with smallholdings planted with oil palm. Just a couple of hectares of mature trees could transform the lives of an impoverished family in rural Indonesia.
The proportion of land that companies had to provide varied. Cede too much to the firms and the communities would not benefit; too little and the investment would be unappealing. By 2002 the prevailing regulation was ambiguous over how companies were to support local farmers, but clear that they had to do it. This was the regulation that gave bupatis power over licensing, and also the authority to revoke permits if companies failed to “grow and empower” local communities. In 2007 the rules became more concrete, requiring companies to provide, plant and hand over an area of smallholdings equivalent to a fifth of their license.
Every company greenlighted by Darwan was bound by these rules, but across the board they failed to comply. From the moment the Kuoks and Rachmats came into the district, in the early 2000s, they had promised smallholdings. Into Darwan’s second term, their failure to deliver caused growing unrest.
If the early land grabs were a cold hard shock, the dearth of smallholdings was a sting that lingered. Without them the communities were left out of the riches generated by the plantations, which were concentrated in the hands of the billionaires who had become the district’s biggest landowners. The villagers had lost their farms, the rivers had become polluted, the best jobs on the plantations went to outsiders seen as more skilled, and day labor picking fruit paid too little to live with dignity.
As the villagers’ protests fell on deaf ears, it became increasingly clear that Darwan was not only representing the companies’ interests, but also wielding his control over the state in support of the firms. When Triputra sparked alarm with a plan to build a processing facility upstream of Lake Sembuluh, residents who complained were met with threats from the bupati himself.
“In 2010, he came to our village for a religious event and said, ‘no one should oppose the mill or there will be trouble,” one villager told an NGO. “‘If you work in government or plantations, then you will be fired’.” Darwan reportedly installed new chiefs in villages that opposed plantations, eroding the potential for resistance through formal institutions.