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
Indonesia is the world's largest cultivator of palm oil.
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
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
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
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, 350ha 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