April 18, 2013
The palm oil industry in Indonesia gets a lot of criticism these days from civil society on issues ranging from deforestation, pollution, wildlife-killing, to social conflict. Writing for Mongabay, I tend to focus on the environmental aspects of palm oil production, but social issues are a very big part of overarching concerns about the industry (like any industry with many stakeholders, including both good actors and bad actors). These include land disputes, labor abuse, social conflict arising from the importation of outside workers, and conflict within communities, among other issues.
One common complaint from communities that oppose oil palm plantation development is the intimidation tactics employed by some operators, including the use of private security forces, especially in areas where land is in dispute. Until last month, I hadn't personally encountered direct threats near an oil palm plantation before (the time I was confronted by a palm oil executive and his two body guards in a hotel elevator doesn't count -- more on that another time). But that changed on my visit to a peat swamp near Sampit in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. I was visiting the area to report on the Katingan Peat Restoration Project.
Driving on a major paved road near Sampit, we passed a new oil palm plantation. I thought the scene — oil palm seedlings in the foreground, peat forest in the background — would make for a good picture, so we pulled over to the shoulder and I hopped out to take a few photos. I was joined by a colleague who's based in Bali. As we snapped away on the side of the public road perhaps 30 meters from the oil palm plantation, which was on the other side of a drainage canal (e.g. we weren't trespassing on private property), out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement. Lowering the camera I saw a guy barreling toward us with something that looked like an assault rifle, finger on the trigger (I subsequently concluded it was most likely a pellet gun designed to look like an assault rifle). We didn't wait around to see what he wanted and sprinted back to the truck. As we ran, a shot rang out. Since our backs were turned, I don't know whether it was fired at us or overhead as a warning shot. Either way it was clear the plantation security guard didn't want us taking pictures.
Due to the unexpected nature of the confrontation and quick escape, I completely failed in my role as a journalist to document the location of the plantation or get other critical details. Frankly at the time, it didn't occur to me to dig out my GPS unit — I was focused on us all getting out of the area safely. Unfortunately since we didn't pass the plantation again during daylight hours, I wasn't be able to get the GPS point. My subsequent efforts to learn more about the plantation — including the location and who owned it — didn't amount to anything, which was a shame.
In any event, the experience illustrated first hand what some local communities face on a daily basis. I can only hope that if there's a next time, I properly document the event so I'm able to report it to authorities as well as the broader public.
Note: GPS point is very approximate. The site of the confrontation could be 30 min by car on either side of this point.