The murder of Martua Parasian Siregar, 55, and Maraden Sianipar, 42, which police say was ordered by a palm oil businessman, highlights the escalating violence and threats faced by environmentalists who challenge the industry, rights groups say.
The two Indonesian activists were found dead 10 days ago with multiple stab wounds near a palm plantation in the island of North Sumatra.
Environmental campaigners and media watchdogs say the two men were former journalists who had got involved in a dispute between the palm oil company that operated the land and local residents.
Police said on Friday they had arrested the head of the Amelia palm oil company, who they identified only as “H” or “Harry”, on suspicion of having paid several men about USD3,000 to kill the two activists.
“This strengthens our suspicion that human rights violations in palm oil companies are rampant,” said Dana Prima Tarigan, who heads green group the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), which had met with the men prior to the deaths.
Police said the palm oil concession where the men’s bodies were found was closed by the government in 2018 for illegally clearing hectares of forest area.
The two activists had been working with local farmers to gain control of the palm crop there, police said.
“The motive of the incident revolves around a land conflict case,” North Sumatra Police Chief Agus Andrianto told reporters, adding that four other suspects had been arrested in the case, with another three still at large.
For civil society groups, the killings show that rights abuses in the USD60-billion global palm oil trade remain widespread, with growing intimidation against those who investigate them.
The murders come weeks after the death of WALHI environmental lawyer Golfrid Siregar in North Sumatra.
Palm oil, the world’s most widely used edible oil, is found in everything from margarine to biscuits and soaps, but has faced growing scrutiny in recent years from critics who blame its production for forest loss, fires and worker exploitation.
Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85 percent of global palm oil. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)