Ongoing legal uncertainty risks more conflict at Indonesia palm site linked to murders

Friday, February 21st, 2020

Tension rising once more at KSU Amelia as new land rights disputes fester in wake of local activists’ murder in 2019 at the North Sumatra plantation.

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Continued legal uncertainty surrounding contested land ownership and user rights risks re-escalating violent conflict at a contested palm oil plantation in North Sumatra, only four months after two local activists were assassinated allegedly on the orders of a company manager.

The risks of further conflict reportedly stem from an increase in thefts of palm oil fresh fruit bunches (FFB) from land claimed to be part of the PT Sei Alih Berombang  (PT SAB) plantation – also known as KSU Amelia, according to anonymous local sources cited by local news outlet Indo Suara News in February.

The Indo Suara News source reportedly attributed the thefts to competing groups of local people from surrounding villages, and called for action from the North Sumatra Provincial Forestry Service.

“Our hope is that the North Sumatra Provincial Forestry Service Government will be firm,” the source is quoted as saying. “If it is allowed to be harvested, the residents agree the distribution of blocks of the land.

“Don’t ignore it, if left unchecked the threat is it will lead to them fighting over mutual ownership claims. This is very dangerous, it is feared they will have a fight. It was originally a small fight, but over time has become big. Yeah like a bomb bang, waiting to explode.”

The source reportedly added: “We are afraid that the resident FFB harvesters in the region will claim ownership over each other ‘s areas until the clash leads to a stabbing”.

Local community harvesting of FFBs from the contested KSU Amelia land has reportedly increased since the plantation was seized by officials following the murder of local activists Maraden Sianipar and Martua Siregar in October 2019, but then abandoned soon after.

The activists were allegedly murdered by KSU Amelia security guards on the orders of its manager Wibharry Padmoasmolo, according to police statements to journalists at the time.

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

Local sources reportedly told Indo Suara News that the continued thefts and tensions arising from them are a result of both legal uncertainty over KSU Amelia’s contested land claims and those of local communities, along with a lack of enforcement by local forestry police.

The absence of clear legal land tenure and enforcement has plagued the plantation for years.

Eight years before the murders, in October 2011, officials at the National Land Agency acknowledged that KSU Amelia/ PT SAB had no land use permit, and the provincial forestry service acknowledged the firm was operating on the forest estate without authorisation in violation of a government regulation.

In April 2014, Indonesian media reported that communities surrounding the plantation urged the local parliament to close KSU Amelia. Villagers also complained the company had destroyed dozens of hectares of their crops on the land.

Two years later 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 700ha of state-owned production forest, 350ha of which was reportedly planted with palm oil.

In this context local community groups have felt increasingly emboldened to occupy land and harvest FFBs from what was officially acknowledged to be land illegally occupied by KSU Amelia.

In January, police reported that three further suspects in the murders of Martua and Maraden remained on the run, while the five suspects arrested in November, including alleged mastermind Wibharry Padmoasmolo, remained in custody pending instructions from prosecutors.