Double murder escalates conflict over illegal Indonesian palm oil plantation

Monday, November 18th, 2019

  • Two activists found dead in a North Sumatra palm oil estate were allegedly assassinated by security guards on orders of their manager, while a third target escaped alive.
  • Government authorities had declared the plantation illegal at least as early as 2011 but appear to have failed to resolve the case before it became lethal.

Indonesia is the largest cultivator of palm oil in the world. Credit: Adobe.

The murder last month of two activists at an illegal palm oil site in Indonesia – reportedly ordered by the plantation’s manager – underlines how weak law enforcement of rogue operators perpetuates land conflicts in the world’s biggest palm oil producing country.

The killings are the latest development in a long-running dispute between communities and the management of PT Sei Alih Berombang (SAB) – also known as KSU Amelia – which operates a plantation near Wonosari Village in Labuhanbatu regency, North Sumatra.

On 30 October the body of Maraden Sianipar was found in a ditch on land claimed by SAB with head wounds and his left arm removed. The body of Martua Siregar, 42, was found nearby the following day with multiple wounds to his head, back and abdomen, according to Mongabay.

North Sumatra police have arrested five suspects, including four security guards working for the company who reportedly admitted involvement in the killings.

The fifth suspect arrested is the security guards’ employer Wibharry Padmoasmolo, who is understood to manage KSU Amelia, and is accused of ordering the murders with payments of a combined IDR41.5 million ($3,000).

A third intended victim – KSU Amelia tenant farmer Ranjo Siallagan – reportedly survived an attempt on his life. Three further suspects remain at large.

Maraden and Martua are reported to have been working with local communities to take control of oil palms and contested land within SAB’s operations – activities that had generated tensions with SAB management, according to the police.

The land conflict has festered for years despite multiple government agencies formally acknowledging the plantation’s illegal status since at least 2011.

In April 2014, local newspaper Suara Sumatra reported how communities from villages surrounding the plantation urged the Labuhanbatu parliament to close KSU Amelia, presenting evidence that the central and local government had already ruled the plantation violated legal provisions. Communities also reportedly complained the company had destroyed dozens of hectares of their crops on the land.

Evidence presented to parliamentarians reportedly included an October 24 2011 letter from the Labuhanbatu branch of the National Land Agency confirming KSU Amelia had no commercial land use permit (HGU) and a 31 October 2011 letter from the Forestry Service confirming the firm was operating illegally on Production Forest in violation of Minister of Forestry Regulation No.44.

A 26 October 2011 letter from the Department of Industry, Commerce and Cooperatives of Small and Medium Enterprises in Labuhanbatu confirming that KSU Amelia had no authorisation to conduct palm oil management business, was also reportedly presented to parliament. The letter stated that the cooperative’s deeds evidence it is registered in Sei Kanan District of South Labuhanbatu Regency – a significant distance from the plantation area.

Suara Sumatra reported that around 200 community members had peacefully occupied land within the KSU Amelia-claimed area in protest, prompting the police chief of Panai Hilir to demand an end to the direct action by residents so that a settlement could be reached to avoid “unwanted anarchistic actions”.

A settlement was not reached.

In March 2016 a North Sumatra parliament commission held a hearing with the National Land Agency, local forestry office, cooperatives department, and the Panai Hilir District head and reportedly concluded that KSU Amelia had encroached on 700 hectares (ha) of state-owned production forest, 350 ha of which was reportedly planted with palm oil.

Nonetheless, it appears KSU continued working and further developing the plantation regardless of the evidence it was not authorised to do so.

Then in November 2018 North Sumatra Forestry Service and police sealed off the land occupied by KSU Amelia and found the firm clearing additional forest land with two excavators. Local media reported sources at the scene estimating that the plantation had been “operating illegally for a decade”.

And yet nearly a year later KSU Amelia was still operating its illegal concession when Maraden Sianipar and Martua Siregar entered it in late October 2019.

That KSU Amelia’s management felt it worth the risk of assassinating three people contesting their land claims – claims government officials have repeatedly and publicly rejected – betrays a significant degree of trust in legal impunity.

Impunity for such illegal land and forest occupations is a factor that criminal operators driving Indonesian’s thousands of palm oil conflicts have relied on for decades.

No one can know if closing this rogue plantation back in 2011 or even earlier would have prevented this conflict festering until it erupted in a brutal double murder.

Yet it seems inevitable that while plantations acknowledged as illegal continue to be allowed to persist de-facto on land and forests of indigenous and local communities with little consequence to their backers and operators, more such tragic conflicts may arise.