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Indonesia & China

Activists from across Asia explain how the EU’s free trade agenda affects them (1)

This is the first in a series of interviews that looks at the work of activists from Asia who came to Brussels this October to participate in the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF 8). We talked to Elisha Kartini about land grabbing and forest destruction because of the palm oil industry in Indonesia, and Chang Tianle from China about the environmental problems caused by industrial, chemical-based agriculture, and her work to promote alternatives.

The struggle to prevent land grabbing and forest destruction in Indonesia

Elisha Kartini (from Indonesia, population 227.3 million) works for the Indonesian Peasant Union (Serikat Petani Indonesia, SPI), researching the expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the displacement of local communities and threats posed to food sovereignty.

What’s the problem ?

Indonesia is a major producer of palm oil, used for biofuels and cosmetics, among other things. Global industrial demand for palm oil continues to drive the destruction of massive tracts of the Indonesian rainforest by a few huge corporations. Local communities who’ve lived on the land for generations are often forced into urban slums, or else they become low-paid labour for the large palm oil producers themselves. This also includes small-scale farmers, whose land is taken over by large corporate enterprises which are either foreign-owned or suppliers of foreign multinationals. Sometimes, small farmers are forced to switch from their own crops to producing palm oil. [1]

“The EU Commission agreed on a biofuels policy in which they explicitly said it is better to produce in tropical countries because of cheap labour and resources.”

“Then in 2006 there was a presidential decree stating that production would increase, and [the Indonesian government] would guarantee distribution.” Palm oil plantations in the country underwent a 1.3 million-hectare expansion.

“There are many conflicts with small farmers ; they are indiginous, and have no official certificate for the land ; the companies claim it is their land.”

SPI has documented many cases of forced expropriations. The police and military are often involved, and in the last two years 15 farmers have been shot. Other human rights violations include intimidation and wrongful imprisonment.

Around 67 percent of the land taken for palm oil plantations is controlled by just 5 companies ; the three big foreign ones are Socfin Group or Socfindo (Belgian), London-Sumatra or LONSUM (formerly British, now Indonesian [2]
) and Wilmar (Singapore). There are also two major Indonesian producers responsible for expropriations and forest destruction, the most famous of which is the massive conglomerate Sinar Mas [3]. About 80 percent of the palm oil produced in Indonesia is exported to Europe.

Although Indonesia has not signed a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU yet, in 2009 a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) was made. Since then, Indonesia has been flooded with zero tariff wheat and sugar exports from Europe, undercutting and threatening the livelihoods of small farmers, while wheat-based, processed noodles are promoted as part of a so-called “food diversification plan” (despite the fact that rice is the staple food in Indonesia).

What does your work involve ?

“First, we want to see land redistribution – so we are campaigning nationally for agrarian reform. This is even supported in the constitution, but this has been frozen since 1965.”

SPI also works to ensure food sovereignty, as an alternative to the “market led” reforms that have increased poverty and food insecurity in the country.

As well as campaigning for policy change, SPI works at the field or village level, helping families and communities in “land reclaiming” – which involves taking back land they have been removed from. They also organize inter-farmer skill exchanges, teaching techniques of agro-ecological farming and how to become independent from industrial farming and big agribusiness. Sometimes SPI also organizes rallies to demonstrate support for their campaigns.

SPI has member organizations in 11 provinces in Indonesia, and 700,000 families are members as well. They are supported nationally and internationally by other non-governmental organizations, and are part of Via Campesina – an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.

What do you hope for EU-Asian relations ?

“Our main hope is that we can stop the Indonesian EU-FTA and for the EU to revoke its biofuels policy. This year, we are working with Francoise Houtart from CETRI – who has provided research to the EU Commission on the impacts of agro-fuels expansion, and also in Brazil and Africa.”

Houtart’s latest briefing to the EU Commission is due this month. For more information, see Industrial Agrofuels : Fuel hunger and poverty (Via Campesina with a chapter by Houtart) ; Houtart (2009) Agrofuels : Big profits, ruined lives and ecological destruction ; and Borras, McMichael and Scoones (2010) “The politics of biofuels, land and agrarian change : editors’ introduction.”

Promoting alternatives to industrial and chemical intensive agriculture that don’t destroy China’s environment

Chang Tianle (from China, population 1.3 billion) works for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and is based in Beijing. Tianle is the China Programme Officer, working together with academia and researchers to promote a holistic approach food systems and policy-making.

What’s the problem ?

In the last 25 years China’s farming and food has been transformed by the adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesiticides, which despite increasing yields have had huge negative impacts on the land, on water, biodiversity and human health. Pollution from China’s rapid industrialization, as well as an explosion of industrial animal feeding operations have all contributed to the problem – driving unsustainable demand for fossil fuels, and contributing to climate change. At the same time meat from factory farms and aggressively marketed Western junk food has led to increasing obesity in urban areas, while people in the countryside suffer from poverty and the poisoning of their environment.

“One of the big challenges is getting different ministries in China to come together” says Tianle.

“There is also a lack of public awareness, but the rise of food scandals is creating a concern for food safety among many Chinese. We have seen for example, a trend of farmers going back to traditional ways of farming but there is still insufficient support for producing organic food.”

What are you are working on ?

“I promote sustainable and fair food systems, working with academia and researchers in China to advocate a more holistic view of food systems. At the moment agriculture, food, health and environment all dealt with separately, but need to be looked at together.

“This programme is just starting in China, but we know for example from the US experience that obesity is clearly linked to agriculture policy – in particular the granting of large government subsidies for soy and corn, which has encouraged corporations to use these commodities to make cheap processed unhealthy food. We want to examine similar policies in the Chinese context.”

How did the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum benefit you ?

“There have been lots of useful discussions here about food sovereignty [where people define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems as opposed to international market forces], which is a new idea in China. I think this concept will be useful for Chinese farmers and consumers to regain control over their food.

“At meetings like this, we can learn from the experience of other countries, how farmers organise themselves, and from the European experience, how local food movements develop.”

What is your message to EU and Asian leaders ?

“I ask them when they make decisions, especially on trade, that they properly consider small household farmers because we have seen that small-scale farmers have suffered considerably from Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) among China and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries. It is important for governments to listen to farmers and not just big agribusiness.


[1These farms are referred to as “nucleus plantations”. There are about 3 million independent small growers in Indonesia. SPI does not oppose production of palm oil by small independent farmers who only sell the fruit bunch and do not have access to the oil processing facilities.

[2London Sumatra was founded in 1906 as a British company, but became Indonesian after shareholders sold their stake in the mid-nineties, and the company became closely connected to the family of former Indonesian dictator, Suharto.

[3See the Greenpeace report on Sinar Mas Caught Red-Handed : Nestlé, Sinar Mas and palm oil

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.