Oil palm is today the fastest growing monoculture in the tropics. Indonesia is the world's largest producer. The country has witnessed a massive conversion of customary (adat) land to oil palm (and fast-wood) plantations. Between 1967 and 2007, oil palm monocultures have increased about 50 times and the government is planning to expand the area under plantation.
The Wilmar Group is the biggest crude oil palm refiner and exporter in Indonesia and the second-largest edible oils trader in the world. The development of oil palm plantations in West Sumatra has been the focus of violent conflicts since 1997, when armed police tried to bully local people into giving up their land to Wilmar-subsidiary PT PHP (Permata Hijau Pasaman I). The latter initiated procedures to acquire land for its plantations in 1992 but it took several years before development permits were finally issued. Only days after an agreement for the relinquishment of lands to the company was signed between certain community leaders and the district regent in 1997, community members contested the transaction noting that they had not been informed and that the land transfer carried out by these ‘delinquent’ (oknum) leaders was contrary to customary law and therefore invalid. The disquiet of the community members has grown now that they have realized that, by transferring rights to the government for the issuance of the lease to PT PHP, they are considered to have surrendered their rights to the land in perpetuity, something that was not made clear to the leaders who signed the original agreement. Since neither the local government nor the company have been prepared to renegotiate these agreements with the wider communities, there have been a series of community protest actions, which have led to intimidation, police reprisals, raids, shooting, kidnapping, beatings, hospitalization of community members, arrests and torture by the security forces. In 2000 for instance, a group of villagers was negotiating with police officers in order to seek the release of several anti-palm-oil activists. The police officers rejected their demands. Suddenly, a protestor threw a stone that broke the windows of the police station. Incited by the stone throwing, other protestors forced their way into the police station to which the police responded by shooting rubber bullets and some live rounds, wounding several protestors. However, the people were able to overcome police resistance and managed to get the imprisoned villagers released from their cells and take them back to their community. This action provoked a strong response from the police. A few days later, fully armed police officers arrived in the village. Shooting their weapons into the air, they demanded that the people involved in the incident give themselves up. Some people were then captured by the police but most of the people being sought could not be located by the police. The police searched for the suspects in every house, creating an atmosphere of extreme fear. In response to this situation, many villagers, mostly women, came to the Pasaman District parliament to hold a demonstration. They urged the parliament to mediate in the dispute, and help restore security and order in Nagari Kapar.