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Indonesian community seeks justice at Unilever AGM over claims of land grabbing by the company’s palm oil supplier

news release
  • Unilever’s Annual General Meeting takes place on Wednesday 1st May in London
  • Members of the Rio Mukti community from Central Sulawesi in Indonesia have travelled to the UK to bring their calls for justice directly to the company’s leadership
  • Friends of the Earth is campaigning for a new due diligence law to ensure companies are held responsible for environmental and human rights abuses in their supply chains 

Members of a community whose land was taken and converted into palm oil plantations, controlled by one of Unilever’s suppliers, have travelled to the UK for the company’s AGM in pursuit of justice.
 
Nengah Wantri and Ketut Sovok, from the Rio Mukti community in Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, say their lives have been upended by the activities of Astra Agro Lestari (AAL), the country’s second largest palm oil company. They say their land was taken by a subsidiary of the group in 2005 by force with company security and police. 
 
AAL has been linked to a number of environmental and human rights violations in Sulawesi, including land grabbing and conflicts with local communities, illegal deforestation, and soil, air and water pollution. 
 
Unilever is behind many of the most well-known household products and brands in the UK, from Dove soap to Pot Noodle, and many of these include palm oil as a key ingredient because it is both cheap and versatile. The company claims to be committed to the responsible sourcing of its ingredients, as well as the protection of people and nature and eradicating deforestation from its supply chains. But so far it has failed to address the serious allegations against its supplier and ensure justice for communities.

This is despite numerous attempts to engage the British-Dutch company by Friends of the Earth, in collaboration with sister groups in Indonesia, the Netherlands and the US. Ten other consumer giants, including Nestlé and L’Oreal, have taken action against AAL.
 
Having also recently rowed back on a number of its social and environmental commitments, Unilever’s green credentials are likely to be a major focus of this year’s annual general meeting.
 
Nengah Wantri, 48, is a mother of four who has been campaigning on behalf of her community for the return and restoration of its land. She said:
 
“When the company moved into the area, they took 72 hectares of land from our community. Not only did they destroy our gardens and the land many of us relied on for income, they burnt down a property of ours in the forest. In 2015 I was also arrested for gathering palm fruits, but more recently I have been intimidated by the company for uploading videos and posts about our struggle on social media.
 
“Before they came, we had a good life. Now we don’t. My income has taken a huge hit. It’s been really difficult to put our children through school. And even being able to afford enough food to feed my family – it’s really hard.”
 
Ketut Sovok, 46, is a farmer and a father of four. He used to make a good income from cocoa farming before the land was taken, but says his life has changed dramatically. Now he struggles to pay for his children to go to school. He said:
 

“Our land used to be so fertile, it was very common to grow oranges or cocoa in our village. But the quality of the soil has degraded after much of the land was destroyed or converted to palm plantation.
 
“Four of my friends were criminalised in 2022 for protesting against these violations at the office of the company. It’s really difficult for our community to take a stand for fear of the repercussions, but we want to be heard and for the world to know what’s happened to our lives and livelihoods. The mental health toll has been too much for some people in my community to bear. 
 
“To see justice, we want our land returned to us – but we also want compensation for the environmental damage caused, and the years of abuse and intimidation we’ve endured. And ultimately, we believe that those who have caused the destruction have a responsibility to restore our precious land to its former glory, so that it is flourishing and thriving once again. Our land is everything to us.”
 
Nengah and Ketut are visiting the UK as part of two-week programme coordinated by international Friends of the Earth groups, which culminates at the Unilever AGM on  Wednesday (1 May).
 
Along with representatives from Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), they will attend the AGM where they will put their demands for the return and restoration of their land and forests, fair compensation, and an end to the criminalisation of environmental defenders directly to the company’s senior leaders and before shareholders. They want to see Unilever using its influence and position as an industry leader to hold AAL accountable. 
 
Friends of the Earth also believes that companies like Unilever have a responsibility to eradicate human rights and environmental abuses from their supply chains. That’s why the group is calling for a new due diligence law to hold all UK companies accountable for violations that occur at any stage of the production of goods sold in the UK.
 
Friends of the Earth’s sister group, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands), will also be attending the AGM with 100 youth activists, who will demand the company aligns its business model with the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C.
 
Campaigners from across Friends of the Earth’s international groups will join together outside the AGM from 10am for a small demonstration, before heading into the conference to put their questions to the company.
 
Uli Arta Siagian, forests and plantations campaigner at WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), said: 
 
“We’ve travelled a long way to urge Unilever to use its influence to ensure justice for the communities affected by palm oil production in Indonesia. We want answers from the Unilever board and we want shareholders to join us in demanding action. Communities have suffered for too long, and our environment is being devastated by the actions of unscrupulous palm oil companies. We need this to stop, we need redress, and we need it now. Unilever must stop buying palm oil from AAL, until AAL returns the community’s land.”
 
Clare Oxborrow, corporate justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said:
 

“Powerful UK companies making vast profits have a responsibility to ensure their supply chains don’t negatively impact the environment or people’s livelihoods – particularly those already among the most marginalised in the world.
 
“A new UK environmental and human rights due diligence law would help tackle the interconnected climate, ecological and human rights crises and help to redress the power imbalance between powerful corporations and affected people, wherever they operate.
 
 
ENDS
 
For more information and interview requests contact the Friends of the Earth press office on 020 7566 1649 or email media@foe.co.uk
 
Notes to editors:
 
 1. Photos of Nengah Wantri and Ketut Sovok, members of the Rio Mukti community from Central Sulawesi, can be downloaded here.
 
 2. The Rio Mukti community’s full list of demands are as follows:

  • Return land back to communities that was taken without their consent 
  • Provide compensation to farmers for loss of lands, crops and livelihoods 
  • Conduct environmental restoration to damaged and degraded forests, rivers and waterways  
  • Stop ongoing criminalisation and work to clear the names of community leaders and environmental and human rights defenders that have been tarnished 
  • Issue a public apology for the harm caused 

3.  Friends of the Earth, as part of the Corporate Justice Coalition, is calling for a new UK Business, Human Rights and Environment Act which has support from over 150 businesses and investors, UK civil society organisations, trade unions, and more than 120,000 people in the UK. New polling by YouGov shows that 4 in 5 UK adults support new laws to tackle environmental harms and human rights abuses in company supply chains.

4. About Friends of the Earth: Friends of the Earth is an international community dedicated to the protection of the natural world and the wellbeing of everyone in it. We bring together more than two million people in 75 countries, combining people power all over the world to transform local actions into global impact. For more information visit: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/ follow us at @friends_earth, or like our Facebook page. Save paper and send an e-card today, available at http://foe.uk/ecogifting

5. About WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia): WALHI is part of the Friends of the Earth International Federation and is the largest and oldest environmental advocacy NGO in Indonesia. WALHI unites more than 479 NGO’s and throughout Indonesia’s vast archipelago, with independent offices and grassroots constituencies located in 27 of the nation’s 31 provinces. WALHI works on a wide range of issues, including agrarian conflict over access to natural resources, indigenous rights and peasants, coastal and marine, and deforestation. WALHI also has several cross cutting issues such as climate change, women and disaster risk management. https://www.walhi.or.id/

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