In Sumatra, villagers occupied an oil palm plantation and set tyres on fire; in the Bangka Belitung islands, they filled the local parliament building demanding action; in Borneo, paramilitary police were deployed to control their protests.
Each of these incidents appeared in local media reports in Indonesia in the past few years and told what was becoming - to anyone paying attention - an increasingly familiar story.
Since the 1970s, as corporate-run palm oil plantations spread across Indonesia, companies promised to share them with local villagers, in plots known as “plasma”. Initially, they made these commitments to secure access to land and subsidised government financing; from 2007, it was a legal obligation to share a fifth of any new plantation with villagers.
During our field reporting in Indonesia’s palm oil heartlands, we repeatedly encountered allegations that companies were failing to deliver. Local media reports from Sulawesi to Sumatra told a similar story, with a steady stream of appeals to government, protests, direct action and sometimes even violence, due to simmering conflicts over plasma.
When we began to investigate this in earnest, one of the key questions we sought to answer was just how widespread this problem was. It soon became clear that government monitoring was patchy and unreliable. Government agencies themselves openly acknowledged the flaws in their data. Most palm oil producers declined to share data that would enable us to interrogate their claims that they were complying with the law.
As it became apparent that there was no definitive, reliable dataset, the potential utility of the local media reports grew into sharper relief. We began to compile them into a database, comprising every public report we could find of a plasma-related dispute. As well as local news stories, the database incorporated reports by credible nonprofits, government agencies and national publications.
To allow us to analyse how trends in conflicts over plasma were shifting over time, we included allegations made between January 2012 and May 2022, when the results of our investigation were first published. We excluded any cases where the nature of the allegation was unclear; the identity of the company facing the allegation was unclear; there was evidence the problem had been resolved; or we felt the article was of insufficient quality to merit inclusion. The dataset ultimately expanded to more than 200 individual cases.
While we eventually sent reporters to 27 cases to investigate them in greater depth, it was beyond the scope of our investigation to verify all of the allegations in the database. The data complemented, rather than replaced, the shoe-leather reporting that formed the foundation of our investigation.
Coding the cases by date, location, the company involved and various other typologies gave us insights into broader trends. We could see where allegations were occurring; where cases were escalating into protests; and which corporations were facing particularly high numbers of allegations.
The database helped us to identify two main categories of allegation that were being levelled at companies. First, that companies had allegedly promised plasma, or were legally required to provide it, but had never done so. Second, that the plasma did exist, but communities were receiving inadequate profits from it (see this post for a more detailed explanation of this second category). We also used the dataset to target our field reporting, conduct additional analysis and present our findings visually.
By categorising and analysing the alleged problems, our reporting team - including Mongabay and BBC News - produced graphics setting out the scale of the problem across Indonesia.
We identified where and when people had protested or taken direct action against companies to map these incidents out across Indonesia and over time.
We cross-referenced cases in our database against data published by consumer goods firms on the source of their palm oil, to identify the number of their suppliers that were implicated in plasma conflicts.
We presented a summary of our findings to the palm oil buyers named in our investigation, highlighting their supply chain connections to specific cases we had examined in depth, and to the larger number of cases in the database.
In response, the buyers pointed to their existing policies aimed at protecting human rights and eliminating "exploitation" from their supply chains. Some noted that they required their suppliers to comply with the law. They said they engage with their suppliers when potential violations of these policies are brought to their attention, and would do so for the cases identified in our article.
Four companies committed to broader efforts to determine and mitigate their exposure to problems with plasma.
The database has limitations. It includes allegations that have not been independently substantiated. As it seeks to incorporate allegations made over a period of multiple years, it may include conflicts that have since been resolved. On the other hand, it likely substantially underestimates the true number of conflicts over plasma, as it only captures those that have caught the attention of reporters, researchers or government agencies.
Nonetheless, it provided valuable insights into broader trends for our investigation, and can also serve as a starting point for further investigation, research and action by others.
This section sets out those fields in the dataset that we’re making publicly available. We categorised the data from the reports using the following headings:
We stopped updating the database at the end of 2022, and are no longer adding new reports.