Norway’s New Attack on Palm Smallholders

In this two-part exclusive, we look at how the Norwegian Government is now funding the BBC to demonise Indonesia’s palm oil industry and its long-standing policies to assist smallholders.

  • BBC has published stories undermining Indonesia’s smallholder support schemes;
  • The attacks are funded by the Norwegian Government’s climate initiative – but have nothing to do with climate change;
  • The BBC story omits key information on the origin of land disputes and their recent resolution;
  • BBC claims it’s not ‘anti-palm oil’ – but the bias in the reporting is clear for all to see.
  • These stories are written with the support of Mongabay and the Gecko Project.

Over the past month, the BBC has launched a series of extraordinary Norway-funded attacks on Indonesia’s palm oil sector.

This is a situation that we predicted in November last year after two developments. First was that Norway’s aid agency Norad renewed its funding for Norwegian International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI), which had provided BBC Media Action with a grant of around USD2.3 million. Second, we had obtained BBC survey documents related to a future story on plasma in Indonesia.

At the time we wrote:

“BBC will co-publish an ‘exposé’ on plasma schemes. It will use a small number of examples to argue that plantation companies are undermining plasma scheme participants and smallholders across Indonesia.  It will largely ignore the wealth of information on the benefits that participating in plasma schemes have provided to many farmers over the decades, including securing secure land titling and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

“Why will the BBC do this? Because that’s what its donors in Norway are paying it to do.”

And this is almost exactly what has happened. They have published a series of articles alongside Mongabay and the Gecko Project.  Norway has funded these stories despite Indonesia’s admonishment for their reneging on climate funding promises, and ongoing controversy about Norway’s international lobbying against palm oil.

The broadcaster has simultaneously made a series of claims that it is ‘not anti-palm oil’.

However, anyone who has observed the palm oil debate knows that this is a common hollow claim made by palm oil’s most strident opponents, whether it’s Greenpeace or the European Union.

So, what has the BBC written, and how accurate is it?

The BBC narrative can be summarised as follows:

Local villagers are in a dispute with a plantation company about set asides for smallholders. The company is depriving local villagers of land – and therefore money. These disputes are common across Indonesia, undermining claims that palm oil supports smallholders. Western companies should therefore boycott palm oil.

Let’s break down these claims.

Omitting information

First is the land disputes. Anyone who knows Indonesia understands that land disputes are never simple.

The main dispute cited – between London Sumatra Plantations and an Orang Rimba tribe from Tebing Tinggi in Sumatra has literally been going on for decades, since the land was doled out by Suharto-era officials for a plantation, which included set-asides for smallholders under the Nucleus Estate Scheme (NES or ‘plasma schemes’).

But the article fails to mention a critical detail: In March of this year the local government distributed 532 plasma plots in that region after a lengthy consultation process. The local government established a verification team to ensure that the lands handed over from the plantation company to the plasma scheme were verified and that the benefits are going to the right people.

There were 571 people registered for the scheme, but in December last year, only 472 were verified. There were question marks regarding nine recipients of land due to data inconsistencies and an additional 15 that could not be verified. The local government says it is going to great lengths to ensure this is correct in order to prevent further conflicts between communities. There are official meetings that are on record as taking place between tribes, the company and government officials to complete the process less than six months ago.

None of this, however, was included in any of the BBC reporting.

Complex situations

There are further complexities that the BBC simply doesn’t report. The most critical of these is the presence of different populations in the area.

Around the Tebing Tinggi Village area there were two waves of migration. The first took place in the 1940s with the arrival of Orang Rimba populations. The second took place in the 1980s under Indonesia’s transmigration programs.

This resulted in a three-way dispute between the two village populations and the company, commencing in the mid-1990s, with the company distributing land to one group, but not another.

This is in line with what has been noted in academic literature, often companies had not checked many individual parcels of land, resulting in prolonged land disputes.

It was also possible that the ambiguity of the claims between the two groups is preventing the company from simply taking some land away from one group and giving it to another.

These developments are, in our view, critical pieces of information and underline how sensitive this matter is on the ground. As with many land conflicts in Indonesia, conflicts aren’t just vertical, between company/government and community. Many conflicts are horizontal, taking place between local communities. Avoiding these conflicts is essential.

In our next part we look at where else the BBC came up short in its reporting on Indonesian palm oil.