Oil palm companies in Papua refer to themselves as a pioneer industry, opening up the interior, trailblazers for new investment and stimulators of local economies. The government has prepared various pieces of legislation to facilitate investment, permits and economic incentives to smooth the way for this pioneer industry, even providing security through the use of state security forces.
On the ground, companies introduce a system of contract law relating to transferral of land rights, in which this is a legal requirement and a condition to obtain cultivation rights title (Hak Guna Usaha). Traditions and customary law around land tenure and land use are stripped away, and they are obliged to follow national laws and corporate management protocol. If there is any recognition of indigenous traditions and precepts, such as a ritual to ask permission or a gift, then it is only undertaken as a formality, a matter of business ethics.
The Worait clan, along with the majority of the Aifat people living arounf the Kais and Kamundan rivers in South Sorong and Maybrat Regencies, and the Puragi people around the Metamani River, South Sorong, are currently having to deal with one of these pioneers of oil palm plantations, part of the ANJ (Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk) Group. Three subsidiaries of ANJ are operating in the area: PT Permata Putera Mandiri (PPM), PT Putera Manunggal Perkasa (PMP) and PT Pusaka Agro Makmur (PAM), with a total planned plantation area of 82,468 hectares.
The majority of the ANJ Group’s licensed area is forest land which was formerly part of PT Wanagalang Utama’s logging concession, which was part of the Kalimanis Group owned by timber mogul The Kian Seng alias Bob Hasan. Then, in 2011, 2012 and 2014 the government issued a series of decrees to release the land, which had been classified as production forest which may be converted, to be turned into oil palm plantations by ANJ’s three subsidiaries.
The minister gave his approval to release forest land, changing its intended use from forest to non-forest (ie. deforestation) to become an oil palm plantation, only based on technical considerations from state bodies concerned with forestry, accordance to spatial plans, and of course economic and political considerations under the pretext of being a “national programme” and in the name of development. The minister issued his decrees without consultation or agreement of the local community. Such policies and practices still work on the assumption that the state has an absolute right of control. It is in contradiction with the Papuan Special Autonomy Law which recognises the rights of indigenous Papuans.
The way that business works in Papua is that corporations use government decrees as assets and a means to consolidate power, and then take control of the land. The majority of the people are not able to reject government decisions and company plans to use forest products and land, just as they couldn’t stop the logging companies that used to exploit the forests in this area, destroying sacred forest areas, clearing social and cultural sites, logging areas which provided food and economic resources for the community.
Memoria passionis, the memory of irregular incidents, violence, discrimination and violations of basic rights that have occurred time and time again in decades past, and continue to the present day, has made the community choose a defensive attitude, preferring to giving in easily rather than being subjected to more violence and insinuated allegations, and the risks of other kinds of aggression.
In June 2016, ANJ conducted a public consultation about their plans and the Environmental Impact Assessment of incoming companies PT Putera Manunggal Perkasa (PT PMP) and PT Pusaka Agro Makmur (PT PAM) in the Mratuwa Sesna Hotel, Teminabuan, South Sorong. Markus Sorry was there representing the Worait clan along with other community leaders from the Aifat people in Womba village, South Aifat sub-district. In the meeting they listened and discovered that the company was already claiming ownership of their customary lands, because it was in possession of a letter of agreement and a letter releasing land rights , between landowners and the company.
Markus Sorry and the other community leaders opposed the company’s plans and claims, because they hand never signed a letter of agreement or letter to release their customary lands.
“I can say that in my position as representative of the Worait clan, from the women and elders, we have never signed any document. We have also never held any discussions about dividing the benefits and compensation for the losses we would incur”, said Markus Sorry.
Unsatisfied with ANJ’s explaination, in August 2016 Markus Sorry visited ANJ’s office in Sorong to ask for copies of documents recording agreements and contracts to surrender land rights. ANJ handed over a bundle of such documents running to 29 pages, comprising: (1) A Statement of Agreement between PT PAM and the people of Womba dated 17th May 2014, (2) A reciept for 1 billion Rupiah compensation paid to release land from customary land rights on 26th May 2014, (3) A receipt for a payment of 20 million Rupiah to support the church in Womba, dated 26th May 2014. (4) A receipt for 40 million Rupiah for Education support / scholarships related to the release of customary land, dated 26th May 2014, (5) Notice of release of control over 12,920 hectares of customary land from the people of Wombu village to PT PAM, dated 26th May 2014 (6) Agreement to release the same amount of land (7) Statement that the land was released on 26th May 2014. (8) A statement from the head of Aifat Selatan sub-district with reference 86/AS/V/2014 dated 20th May 2014, concerning proof of customary rights ownership (9) A letter acknowledging the indigenous people of Womba village’s customary land, dated 10th March 2014.
The Aifat people have never before engaged in a transaction to surrender rights over customary land at a large scale and are not familiar with written contract law to legitimise transferrals of rights to land and other resources. Logging companies with HPH permits (now known as IUPHHK-HA) used to extract timber without organising decision-making councils or getting any kind of written permission from the community.
Nowadays, oil palm companies are introducing written contract law to release land rights, a new legal culture which the community does not understand. Contracts and forms of recognition under various names which translate as ‘proposal money’, ‘compensation money’, ‘knock-on-the-door money’ and so on, and promises of development in exchange for the right to use the land, are a new form of knowledge which are introduced at the same moment as pioneering companies in extractive industries show up in the area. State regulations and these different forms of recognition are a trap which give corporations exclusive power – power that is use to justify taking control, owning and managing land and other natural resources.
The sub-district government only issued a statement of proof of customary rights ownership after ANJ moved in. The sub-district government has never issued a similar document for the local community in areas where oil palm companies have not been active.
Markus recalled a meeting with the company. In May 2014, Markus and other local people went to a company presentation and introduction in a hotel in Sorong city. Following up this meeting, the company held a discussion with local people in their village. One week later, the company met with the people of Womba and informed them of its plans to start an oil palm plantation and made promises of development. The company also handed over 800 million Rupiah to the community, which was accepted and signed for by one individual.
In discussions about releasing land rights and agreements that are binding on both parties, if an agreement is to be made, it must be properly understood, there must be an understanding of its contents, possible benefits and risks, and there should be clarity on its form, size and limits. However, this did not happen and the community was never aware of what was occuring. In a short period of time, with just two meetings, it is far from certain that they could have reached a decision and made an agreement which would imply risks to their livelihoods for decades to come. The only explanation could be that it was manipulation and other pressures which produced an agreement.
Manipulation of signatures is believed to have taken place in the bundle of documents in which the people of Womba village agree to release their lands to PT PAM. Signatures were allegedly duplicated without consent and signatures from an attendance list were annexed to documents detailing agreements.
“We have sent a letter to the company to reject all these agreement documents. We have never seen, written, or read any of the documents which the company has given us, how could it be possible that we have agreed to them and signed them?” explained Markus Sorry. This explanation was also confirmed by Moses Worait and Timotius Sewa, who said that they had never signed any documents except for a receipt for compensation and a meeting attendance list.
The unfair manipulation of signatures is used to obtain justification for taking over ancestral land. Local people are obviously the losers, as their land rights are taken away. The community loses control over the land, they can no longer manage their sources of economic livelihood, their sources of food and other assets that ensure their welfare. The government and financial institutions which fund these mischievous corporations, should verify what is going on and impose sanctions when a companies actions are found to contravene laws, and then revoke its permits and refuse to support evil companies, even if they are pioneers.
The 1 billion Rupiah compensation money, of which 800 million was received, and which was meant to release 12920 hectares of ancestral land to PT PAM, was understood to be ‘proposal money’, ‘knock-on-the-door money’ a donation to the tribe or whatever. If some person or legal entity such as a company wishes to acquire something belonging to someone else, that doesn’t mean that the community has agreed to surrender all their rights over the land. Especially with a land value of 62,000 Rupiah per hectare, which is tiny in comparison to the economic benefits that can be obtained from that land instead of using money to buy basic goods
The Aifat, Ayamaru and Aitinyo peoples, who live in the Maybrat area, are familiar with their tradition of exchanging ‘cloth from Timor’ when they wish to obtain something, usually this is used to propose marriage to a woman or to pay a fine, and it can also be used when someone wants to get some land (Wasuway, 2012). Companies using this tradition of exchange have a different social purpose, limited to the amount used to obtain something and a transaction involving commercial commodities.
If these agreements are understood properly, it means that all the communities rights to control, manage and use these lands and forests no longer exist, including natural resources under the earth’s surface such as oil and other mineral wealth, and this will be valid for all time.
The legislation trap which hands exclusive power to businesses will bring them multiple benefits and will leave the company free to develop its assets in including in other economic areas sich as oil and gas extraction, which is known to show potential in this area. The Bintuni Bay area around the Kamundan and Kais Rivers, and as far as Sorong, has been a focus for oil and gas exploration since 1928, starting with the joint venture NV Nederlansche Nieuw Guinea Petroleum Maatschappij (NNGPM), but commercial production has only taken place around Klamono since 1938 and more recently in Bintuni Bay since 2005. Remnants of the network and machines which were used for exploration can still be found at several sites near the Kais River.
[awasMIFEE note: ANJ bought PT Pusaka Agro Makmur on 15th October 2014, from Wodi Kaifa Ltd, which is believed to be linked to a secretive company called Pusaka Agro Sejahtera that has obtained permits for oil palm companies all over Papua, but has never operated a plantation itself – land speculators if you like. According to the dates given in this article, it would have been the former owner which undertook the process of land negotiation with the community, and handed the documents they had obtained (and possibly manipulated, if the allegations in this article are correct) to ANJ, along with the packet of permits needed to operate a plantation. The signature of customary landowners becomes one more bureaucratic hurdle which can be used to obtain the coveted cultivation rights title (HGU).
This needs to be criticised as well. ANJ likes to try to present itself as a progressive company open to sustainability concerns, engaging with the RSPO, committed to free prior informed consent, transparency and so on. However it has spectacularly failed in Papua by buying three concessions from the same speculator, which is completely non-transparent and unaccountable, not exposed to demand for non-exploitative product from palm oil buyers and presumably has no particular reason to be concerned about the long-term welfare of indigenous people living on the land it deals in. Work started on ANJ’s other two Papuan concessions in 2014, and as well as the concerns about deforestation and peat, there have been several land disputes where villagers believe that the company has cleared their land without permission or adequate compensation. Four people have spent time in prison as a consequence of their opposition to the company. It would be highly unlikely for this to happen if there had been a genuine,thorough and participative decision-making process engaging all community members potentially affected by the development before it occurred.
In those cases, in company documents available on the RSPO webpage, the company even acknowledges that it doesn’t have the consent of the whole community. For example PT Putera Manunggal Perkasa’s Social Impact Assessment: “More than 80 % of the communities are agreed with the operational of PT.PMP and more than 57% of the community received the socialization conducted by PT. PMP but most of the community said that they are unsatisfied with the socialization conducted by Company”. In the case of PT Permata Putera Mandiri it admits there was “Unclear information about land boundary between villages”, but it went ahead nevertheless. Copies of thumbprints of clan chiefs are also included as evidence of consent, but no methodology or dates are given to indicate whether it was ANJ that negotiated with communities, or the previous owner.]