The dirt road meandered endlessly. perforated. Dusty, rocky. Left and right there is only one type of plant: palm trees stretching in all directions. That’s the view when entering Kabuyu, a small village on the banks of the Pasangkayu River, in the hinterland of Pasangkayu Regency, West Sulawesi.
Kabuyu is right in the heart of the oil palm plantation business, controlled by PT Astra Agro Lestari (AAL) subsidiaries, in Pasangkayu. Between the village and the plantation of PT Mamuang, one of AAL’s subsidiaries, there is only a wooden fence separated by a wire.
At the threshold of the village, a plot of land belonging to PT Mamuang has been bald. In a corner of the garden, an excavator was uprooting another old palm. The company wants to replace it with new oil palm plants.
On the side of the road, I met a group of small children and a mother. They walked away and turned to each other while conversing in words I couldn’t understand. Across from them, a man stood, grumbling at the mother and children.
“If we’re here, don’t be either,” the man raised his voice. “Insolent is his name!”
I asked the person I was talking to. “Where are the children from?”
“Kabuyu.” “They wanted to go and pick up loose fruit from the remains of the fallen palm oil, but the company was forbidden to take it lightly ,” he said.
“That was the angry one.”
Centeng is what the locals call a company garden security officer who is not in uniform, a man who grumbles on the verge of the village.
“That’s how the children are here,” said Halimah, a mother in Kabuyu. “They often go to collect loose palm fruit and then sell it. Buy more books.”
“But the company always forbids it,” said the 45-year-old woman.
Kabuyu is the home of a small community of the Kaili Tado family, settlers of the central Sulawesi plains.
Albert C Kruyt, a Dutch ethnographer, noted that in 1938, Kabuyu—in the spelling ‘ Kaboejoe’ —was built by the ‘Torilo’ Community, between the confluence of the Ewa and Kabuyu Rivers, with a population of about 100 people.
Kruyt included Kabuyu as part of the Pakawa Group, settlers in the interior of the Pasangkayu forest.
Long before the palm oil industry changed the landscape and logging companies operated, the people of Kabuyu depended on the blessings of forests, rivers and swamps. They cultivate rice—sometimes in the swamps, grow sago, durian, jackfruit, bananas, catch fish in the river, or go hunting.
“The forest was here first. The trees are big,” said Kimin, a 66-year-old man in Kabuyu.
All of that is just a memory. Around the 90’s, Mamuang built a palm oil plantation. Mamuang obtained the right to cultivate in 1997, on an area of 8,000 hectares, bordered by a river and the HGU of another AAL subsidiary.
Kimin returned to occupy Kabuyu in the early 90’s, after migrating. “Around 93, the company entered accompanied by soldiers. Trees uprooted, chopped up freshly burned. The fire was huge,” said Kimin.
“The fields, the fields are over.”
The company has denied accusations that they damaged the residents’ garden crops.
“Before, I was in Kabuyu Tua, [the company] had not worked there. In 2004 the community had a movement. Occupy the land because the residents are angry, they are often evicted,” said Kimin.
“We survive here. Otherwise, this village would not exist.”
Residents demanded 500 hectares of land out of the Mamuang concession. Kimin and the residents have gone through everything. They carried out civil lawsuits, demonstrations here and there, to the reoccupation of land that had been claimed by the company.
Now, Kabuyu is a village with semi-permanent houses surrounded by oil palms. The current location of Kabuyu is not much different from the colonial map of the Dutch East Indies , dated 1927. Mamuang made Kabuyu an enclave of 250 hectares.
In early 2022, residents calling themselves the Kabuyu Community Alliance will again enter the company’s concession in front of the village, following the Decree of the Minister of Environment and Forestry concerning the Revocation of Forest Area Exploitation Permits in 2022.
Previously, in a series of protests and mediations that lasted for days, they occupied the land, which according to Kimin belonged to the residents of Kabuyu. They set up a meeting house. Planting rice and corn between the new oil palms.
Not long after, the struggle subsided, after a resident named Dedi Sudirman was arrested by the police, for allegedly threatening Mamuang workers, during a demonstration .
When I visited Kabuyu, the meeting house was gone. There were only small fields and garden huts with thatched roofs.
Dedi showed two maps with dozens of marks showing the locations of the predecessor grave complex and places where sago was planted. “There used to be sago,” said Dedi, pointing to the foot of the hill not far from the occupation area.
The portrait in Kabuyu is a reflection of the agrarian conflict in Indonesia. Notes of the 2022 Agrarian Reform Consortium, agrarian conflicts continue to increase and affect 346,000 families, with an area of conflict exceeding one million hectares spread across 33 provinces including West Sulawesi. Agrarian conflicts in oil palm plantations account for almost half of these figures.
In agrarian conflicts, such as in this oil palm company, children often receive impacts that will stick with them until they grow up.
“Environmental conflicts always place children as forgotten actors. Given their position [they are still children] and they are considered a group that has no voice,” said Ari Moch Arif, Director of the Climate Change and Circular Economy Program, Save the Children Indonesia.
In fact, he said, in daily life—especially in conditions in areas of agrarian conflict—, children are the most vulnerable group.
Children are often not safe and comfortable living in their village, both when they are active at home, at school, or with family conditions. “Because he saw that his parents had problems and were at risk of losing their economic sector and their livelihoods.”
In a certain context, said Ari, agrarian conflicts put pressure on social and economic issues for people in conflict.
“In this context, it is the family and children, again, who receive the most impact from a psychological perspective and other threats.”
In Kabuyu and its surroundings, I met residents who, when they were in their teens, were unable to continue their higher education because there was no living space.
On the other hand, agrarian conflicts have an impact on children’s basic rights. The right to education, the right to protection from discrimination, the right to protection against forced evictions, and the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
“Some of the rights of children who are possibly affected by agrarian conflicts include the right to education, the right to protection from discrimination, the right to protection against forced evictions, and the right to participate in making decisions that affect their lives,” said Saurlin Siagian, Commissioner for Assessment and Komnas HAM research.
From January 2021 to December 2022, Komnas HAM received 1,078 complaints related to agrarian issues. Four complaints came from West Sulawesi.
“In agrarian conflicts, children’s rights should be recognized and protected in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was accepted by the United Nations, and which was ratified by Indonesia with Presidential Decree 36 of 1999,” he said.
The company, he said, has provided schools and health services in the form of Posyandu and “nutrition attention for local children.”
In total, 1,378 children with 11 schools belonging to the company, he said, had benefited from the educational activities developed by Mamuang.”
Scavenge for crumbs
“A little garden from parents. Moreover, the river often erodes when it floods,” said Tini, not her real name, in Kabuyu.
Tini is a single mother with two sons. Tini’s eldest son is quiet and shy, and attends the company’s elementary school. He wants to be a cop. The youngest is four years old.
He asked for his name and children not to be named.
Like her son, Tini was born in Kabuyu, 28 years ago. He married as a child, aged 14. Her parents got married to relieve the economic burden, like her other sisters.
Tini nine brothers. All just finished elementary school. “Parents are hard. Often left by working parents. The plantations were also taken by the company,” said Tini.
In difficult conditions, living in the midst of conflict, little Tini does not have far-reaching aspirations. “I just want to be a gardener,” he said.
He knew this land conflict since childhood. Tini feels that her son is experiencing the same fate that he experienced as a child.
Tini does not want her children to have a bleak fate but to guarantee the well-being of her children demands a lot of money.
Within a certain time, Tini and her mother worked on a patch of dry land left by the family, by the river. In that narrow area, Tini grows corn, chilies, and rice specifically for traditional purposes. In 2022, he didn’t work on the garden because of flooding.
“If you don’t plant rice, people [pamali] will get sick. Sometimes sick children, grandchildren. Later, when you plant it, it will heal. Let’s just plant a little,” he said.
In Kabuyu, rice is not for sale and garden produce from limited land does not guarantee that Tini’s kitchen will continue to steam.
He had to join odd jobs. In Kabuyu, Tini doesn’t have many job options—if there are any.
Tini joins neighbors in eradicating weeds that grow thickly in Mamuang’s garden which is being rejuvenated. Almost every morning, he goes to the garden. Spraying ‘weed poison’ and chopping weeds, until the sun was right above and ‘scorched’ his body.
Tini was hired for tens of thousands of jobs.
At other times, he works as a day laborer, harvesting palm oil in a plantation owned by a person or company. When on school holidays, Tini takes her eldest son with her. This type of work is summed up by the term “eat the paycheck.”
In addition to money, Tini hunts for loose palm fruit. Entering every garden that has been harvested. Picking loose fruit behind the grass or palm fronds. Fruit after fruit. His eldest son occasionally tagged along.
In Kabuyu, loose palm fruit is the prima donna. Looking for it does not take much energy. Per kilogram, valued at IDR 1,750.
Usually Tini can collect up to three sacks of loose fruit, about 40 kg per sack. “Add money to eat and buy snacks for the children,” he said.
Brondolan is the fruit of the palm, smaller than the salak fruit and brownish red in color. The fruit sometimes falls from the palm bunches.
In the rejuvenating gardens, loose fruits are scattered as if they were falling from the sky. “Usually we go in secretly. If we [people from the company] are seen, we will be scolded for sure,” he said.
Another option is palm fruit bunches, which are much more productive.
But ‘harvesting’ company gardens without a permit is always risky in many ways.
I met Andi, not his real name, a 17 year old Kabuyu teenager. About three years ago, Andi and his cousin wanted to ‘shoplift’ palm fruit in Mamuang’s garden.
He needs money.
They arrived at the garden in a dark ambush. Andi then walked into the garden, while his cousin watched from the side of the road, where he parked his motorbike.
Not too long ago, unluckily, they were caught by company officers. His cousin fled on a motorbike, leaving Andi in the garden, trapped in the dark and two officers.
“I was asked, brought to the post.” At the post, Andi was allegedly beaten. “My face is swollen. My eyes can’t open. Tomorrow morning I will be released, right when my mother picks me up.”
At that time, Andi was 14 years old. “They know that I am a child, because my age was asked,” he said.
In a written statement, the company confirmed that the incident Andi told never happened.
“…Mamuang… has implemented human rights principles in all of his activities,” said Husni.
“If someone accuses the company of committing human rights violations, the accusations against Mamuang are not based on the facts that happened on the ground.”
Tini sells the loose fruit to collectors in the village. From here, the loose fruit is mixed with other palm oil, then supplied to AAL’s palm oil mill, to make crude oil.
Mamuang did not have a factory. The harvest will be sent to factories belonging to other nearby subsidiaries, including PT Pasangkayu, PT Letawa, or PT Lestari Tani Teladan.
The palm oil was then bought by another company. Intertwined in cross-border supply chains, ending and mixing into household products, as well as children. Lined up in storefronts and markets with various brands: infant formula , cereals, chocolate snacks, shampoo, soap, cooking oil, and cheap children’s snacks.
In October 2022, Nestlé, a giant Swiss food and beverage manufacturer, plans to no longer include three of AAL’s subsidiaries, which operate in West and Central Sulawesi, from their list of indirect suppliers.
The policy follows letters from 55 organizations accusing the three AAL subsidiaries of having “violated human rights,” in the form of “seizure of people’s management areas, criminalization, illegal plantations, and environmental destruction.”
This letter is addressed to the Forest Positive Coalition, part of the Consumer Goods Forum (GFC), a consortium of world-renowned consumer brands, of which Nestlé is a member.
On its website, Nestlé has listed Mamuang, as “an upstream supply chain company we are no longer working with.”
Uli Arta Siagian, Walhi’s National Executive Forest and Garden Campaign Manager, said companies destroying the environment that practice without permits are subject to strict action. Companies are also obligated to restore the forests they have damaged.
“Indonesia is sacrificing the environment and people’s rights over consumption patterns.”