Seeking justice against palm oil firms, victims call out Dutch banks behind them

Individuals from Indonesia and Liberia embroiled in land disputes with oil palm plantations have visited the Netherlands to call on banks facilitating these companies’ operations to take action. But Dutch banks ABN AMRO and Rabobank say there is little they can do to influence the companies.

Hemsi has been in jail three times since 2006 and filed pleas with 13 government institutions in Indonesia during that period — all in an effort to fight off the oil palm company he alleges is stealing his land.

A farmer from Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province, Hemsi has also traveled to the capital, Jakarta, three times to call on the government to protect him and his family. Each time, his pleas have gone unanswered.

His last arrest was in December, a day after his wife gave birth to their third child, when he was detained for allegedly stealing palm fruit from his own land — land that PT Mamuang, a subsidiary of plantation giant PT Astra Agro Lestari (AALI), claims as its own.

“I’m terribly disappointed with the government because I’ve reported my case with complete evidence and yet they’ve ignored my case and I got sent to jail again,” Hemsi told Mongabay. “I’m frustrated but I’ll keep fighting for my rights because it’s my only hope to provide a livelihood for my family.”

Hemsi’s remarks came during a trip to the Netherlands in early October, facilitated by the Dutch environmental NGO Milieudefensie, the Dutch chapter of Friends of the Earth. He reckons that since he can’t get justice back home, he’ll hit the company where it hurts: its funding. In AALI’s case, these would be the Dutch banks ABN AMRO and Rabobank, both of which have financial ties to the Indonesian company.

I’m asking them to stop funding PT Astra Agro Lestari, which is operating in my village, because that company has criminalised me and sent me to prison three times.

Hemsi, farmer, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia

ABN AMRO was the underwriter for AALI’s initial public offering in 1997. More recently, according to Milieudefensie, in 2018 the bank sold shares in PT Astra International, the parent company of AALI and the largest listed company in Indonesia. PT Astra International is in turn a subsidiary of Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited, a conglomerate based in the secrecy jurisdiction of Bermuda and listed on the Singapore exchange.

Milieudefensie says Rabobank twice facilitated syndicated loans for PT Astra International in 2010 — loans provided by a group of lenders that Rabobank organised but may not necessarily have contributed to. Milieudefensie says the Dutch banks aren’t informing customers about all the companies whose operations they’re facilitating, with some of that activity labeled as “sustainable” despite benefiting companies with a track record of environmental and social violations.

“I’m asking them to stop funding PT Astra Agro Lestari, which is operating in my village, because that company has criminalised me and sent me to prison three times,” Hemsi said. “The company has robbed me of my land, the only hope for my family. I hope my rights can be restored and there’s no more criminalisation.”

‘Enough is enough’

Hemsi isn’t the only one who feels aggrieved by the disruptions wrought by the Dutch banks’ links with a palm oil company. Also making the trip to the Netherlands were Terry Doegmah Panyonnoh and Harriet Sayee Saylee, Liberian activists who have also lodged complaints to ABN AMRO and Rabobank over their financial ties to Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL). They allege the palm oil company is involved in land grabbing in the Liberian counties of Sinoe and Grand Kru.

Their activism earned them the same fate as Hemsi: Panyonnoh and 16 other young members of his community were jailed for a year after they protested against GVL.

“GVL came with big promises for development, but today we lost our land and we ended up in poverty,” Panyonnoh said. “Farming is difficult. Almost no jobs. The forest we used to find medicine, fish and clean water is destroyed. People are intimidated and harassed with the support from GVL.”

GVL is owned by Verdant Fund, based in the Cayman Islands, another secrecy jurisdiction. The sole investor in the fund is Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources Limited (GAR), the world’s second-biggest palm oil producer, whose subsidiaries have received loans from both ABN AMRO and Rabobank in recent years.

GVL came with big promises for development, but today we lost our land and we ended up in poverty.

Terry Doegmah Panyonnoh, activist, Liberia

Evert Hassink, from Milieudefensie, told Mongabay that the decision to bring these community members over to the Netherlands to confront the banks directly was in response to a statement by ABN AMRO earlier this year.

“ABN AMRO called on the victims of their clients this February to come and report about the abuses,” he said. “Well, here we are. Even though it is of course crazy that they have to come all the way to make their point.”

Hassink added that, “After years of challenging and bringing complaints to the companies in Liberia and Indonesia, these land rights defenders say ‘enough is enough.’ Today, Terry, Harriet and Hemsi are here to confront the banks in the Netherlands and hear what they really do to get their clients to improve.”

A responsibility to act

The banks say there’s little they can do about companies with which they’re not directly connected.

“The link is often very, very indirect,” said Johan Verburg, an official in Rabobank’s sustainability department. “Where we can, we try to indirectly influence. There is a much, much higher leverage in a direct relation. Indirectly, we can talk, but there’s not much pressure we can put otherwise.”

Verburg said Rabobank steers clear of directly financing any problematic companies. He added that Rabobank’s direct clients in the palm oil industry, of which there are around 20 worldwide, must be members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the leading certification body for the industry. (GAR is an RSPO member company; AALI is not.)

“We would ensure that concern is on the radar of other stakeholders, companies, banks, roundtables, who can put direct pressure on that case,” Verburg said. “So in this particular case, and similar cases, we will monitor what the RSPO monitor panel is doing, and what the RSPO member in this case is doing. It’s typically a situation where we will be very cautious to have a direct investment relation at all.”

Richard Kooloos, the head of sustainable banking at ABN AMRO, said he couldn’t immediately confirm Milieudefensie’s claim that the bank sold PT Astra International shares, but that even if true, it’s an indirect relationship. (ABN AMRO was the underwriter for PT Astra Agro Lestari’s initial public offering in 1997.)

“I don’t know it by heart. The fact that they say the relationship with ABN AMRO is through stock, for me that indicates that there’s only this relationship,” Kooloos said.

But if the finding is confirmed, and Hemsi’s case is deemed severe enough, then ABN AMRO will engage with the company, Kooloos said.

“If we are aware of misdoing, not minor, but major misdoings over a long period of time, [and] if that happen from thousands of companies globally that our clients can invest in, then we will start engaging,” he said.

“And if this is not addressed, then we can remove that company from our universe, that means that our clients cannot buy that stock anymore through us. That’s the ultimate step. But you usually see the issue is being addressed indeed and your influence has an impact.”

Similar to Rabobank’s Verburg, Kooloos said ABN AMRO would have more influence in the matter if PT Astra International was a direct client of the bank, such as being a loan recipient.

“It’s a different type of influence because we don’t have a relationship with this company. We don’t know the company, we haven’t analysed the company,” Kooloos says. “But if a company is a client of us, we know everything. We also have private information. But if it’s through this stockholding, we only have public information. But nevertheless, we are linked in our value chain to that company, so we have a responsibility to act.”

These financial institutions seemingly wash their hands clean after these companies are no longer their clients.

Yuyun Harmono, campaigner, Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi)

More stringent financing rules

Beyond the PT Astra Agro Lestari and Golden Veroleum Liberia cases, Milieudefensie wants rules in place that would prevent banks and investors from profiting off the destruction of forests, human rights violations, climate-polluting oil extraction, and child labor.

The organisation launched a petition three months ago calling on the Dutch finance minister to raise the issue before the new European Commission.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest green group and an advocate for Hemsi, says the European Union should have a regulation that holds financial institutions such as banks accountable for the impact of their financing to palm oil companies.

Walhi climate justice campaigner Yuyun Harmono, accompanying Hemsi to the Netherlands, said Dutch banks were far too reliant on existing sustainability certification schemes such as the RSPO, and also lack a mechanism to remedy the impact of companies whose operations have been facilitated, directly or indirectly, by the banks.

He cited the case of Rabobank, which he said provided loans to PT Astra Agro Lestari at a time when the company was already embroiled in the land dispute with Hemsi.

“These financial institutions seemingly wash their hands clean after these companies are no longer their clients,” Yuyun said. “There’s no accountability for their past mistakes.”

He said the EU had a responsibility to better regulate its financial institutions in light of its decision to phase out palm oil-based biodiesel by 2030.

“On one hand, they want to phase out palm oil because of climate change,” Yuyun said. “But on the other hand, they also keep investing in Indonesia’s palm oil industry. It’s a double standard.”

Bas Eickhout, a member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands, said he was fully aware of this conundrum.

“We have to make sure that that [financial] policy is consistent with what we are doing with our policies on palm oil for example,” he told reporters at the European Parliament in Brussels. “And that’s not fully consistent yet. I’m fully aware [of] that, so there’s work that needs to be done also on the financial rule. But that’s the next discussion we’re having, absolutely.”

Yuyun said Walhi had approached Indonesia’s financial regulator, the OJK, to call for stronger regulations on sustainable financing. But progress has been slow, he said. Abdul Haris, the head of the Walhi chapter in Central Sulawesi, Hemsi’s home province, said he had filed a report on Hemsi’s case to the OJK in 2016.

“But to date there hasn’t been any follow-up,” he said.

As for Hemsi himself, the fight is far from over. While he was in the Netherlands, the Indonesian police questioned his family back home.

“My parents were visited by the local police asking for information. My wife was also visited by police at night. She was asked to take them to the site where I was accused of stealing [palm fruit],” he said.

He added he believed the police visits were linked to his trip to the Netherlands — an effort to “hinder the process of the filing of my complaints.”

But Hemsi said he wouldn’t be intimidated into giving up.

“Even if I have to go to jail again, I’ll do that, as long as my land rights are acknowledged,” Hemsi said. “I want to show other farmers who are criminalised that we can’t afford to stop fighting and that we should fight together.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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