Speaking confidently into a microphone and holding a tangkalak, an Indigenous ceremonial basket made from pandanus leaves harvested from the forest, Dita, a young woman from the Talang Parit Adat community expressed sorrow for the disappearing forests in her community’s customary territory. “If there is no tangkalak, we cannot hold traditional weddings and ceremonies,” she said.
Every year, fewer youth from the community, which is part of the broader Talang Mamak Indigenous group, are learning to weave these traditional baskets because the pandanus leaves are disappearing. More and more forests in Riau province on Sumatra Island are being replaced with palm oil plantations.
Across from Dita, sitting on a traditional floor mat handcrafted using parts of local rambai plant, is Irasan, Chief of the Talang Parit. He quietly wipes tears from his eyes as Dita recalls their community’s irreparable loss of knowledge and natural resources.
Finding a voice
In 2020, Irasan and other members of the community traveled to Jakarta twice to submit a formal complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Indonesia’s National Land Agency against the company PT Inecda Plantations, for violating the community’s right to their customary territory in Riau province.
The RSPO is a global non-profit that implements global standards for sustainable palm oil across the industry. PT Inecda Plantations is a subsidiary of the Korea-based Samsung C&T Group through S&G Biofuel Pte Ltd. registered in Singapore, an RSPO certified member. Among others, RSPO standards include responsible plantation management, protection of natural resources, and meeting local community obligations.
The visit and complaint were made possible by the AsM Law Office, a law firm that promotes just and environmentally sustainable policies and practices for Indonesian communities, with support from RRI’s Strategic Response Mechanism.
Prior to traveling to Jakarta, AsM Law Office provided advocacy training and paralegal internships to selected community members, helping them submit not just a formal complaint letter but also a legal opinion document and a detailed chronology of the company’s environmental abuses.
“We developed a training methodology more effective than traditional paralegal training so communities can analyze their cases and choose the most adequate strategy for themselves. Our aim is not to make Indigenous Peoples law graduates in a week, but to generate practice-oriented community paralegals,” said Andiko, AsM Law Office Senior Sustainability and Human Rights lawyer.
In the case of Talang Parit, said Andiko, the AsM Law firm trained a first generation of young paralegals who were actively involved in filing the community complaint to the RSPO alongside pro bono professional lawyers acting for the community’s legal defense.
In 2019, RRI conducted an initial investment chain analysis of current concessions in the Talang Mamak’s customary territory, in support of the development by AsM of new community-based monitoring (CBM) frameworks to monitor the socio-environmental impacts of supply chains and investments. These frameworks are designed to help local communities provide oversight and accountability of natural resource management in their territories.
Using CBM, the Talang Mamak were able to document PT Inecda Plantations’ palm oil development and its impacts in their territory and submit these findings to RSPO as part of their formal complaint.
After 25 years, a community is heard
Between December 6 – 9, 2021, representatives from RSPO and PT Inecda Plantations traveled to Talang Parit to meet with the community for the first time since their complaint was submitted in 2020. It was also the first dialogue to ever take place between PT Inecda Plantations’ General Manager and the community.
These meetings offer a glimmer of hope for the community and the island’s natural resources since the Indonesian government issued PT Inecda Plantations a plantation permit in 1984, resulting in the encroachment of 5,760 hectares of Talang Parit territory.
“The formal complaint submitted to RSPO by the Talang Mamak Indigenous Peoples of Sumatra Island helps us improve the governance of our oil palm plantations. As a member of the RSPO, we respect the ongoing dispute resolution process,” said Hamdi, the General Manager of PT Inecda Plantations.
In response, Imam A. El Marzuq, the RSPO Senior Manager of Global Community Outreach and Engagement said that much remains to be done to improve the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the palm oil sector in Indonesia. “If companies cannot keep up with the high sustainability standards, it is certain that the Indonesian palm oil market will experience a decline,” he said.
Public commitments to respect human rights and land rights made by companies and their investors who are certified by RSPO – including PT Inecda Plantations and its parent company Samsung C&T – are nothing new. But for Irasan, who has been struggling to claim back Talang Parit customary territory from PT Inecda Plantations since 1997, its visit to the community is a big step in the right direction.