Michelin and WWF have been criticised over a rubber plantation in Indonesia which villagers say has caused deforestation and destroyed elephant habitat

By Adam Vaughan
A view from the Muara Sekalo village
F Otten, University of Göttingen
Tyre giant Michelin and green group WWF have been criticised by researchers over a rubber plantation in Indonesia that was billed as protecting the environment, but which villagers say has caused deforestation, destroyed elephant habitat and resulted in land grabs.
In 2015, Michelin began work on the 66,000 hectare plantation on the island of Sumatra, partnering with WWF as an adviser, to source rubber from an area that Michelin had said had been ravaged by logging and fires. The French company, one of the worlds biggest buyers of rubber, promised the plantation would be deforestation-free, protect flora and fauna by creating a buffer zone for wildlife and generate 16,000 jobs.
But a visit by German researchers to the nearby village of Muara Sekalo in the province of Jambi has unearthed a very different account of the projects impact.
Farmers from the village, and women working for one of the plantations partners, told the team that forests had been cleared to establish the rubber trees. Villagers also reported that the plantation had destroyed the habitat of elephants, leading more of the animals to approach the village and become more aggressive, destroying farmers plantations. Several farmers were said to have eventually abandoned their plots as a result.
Some of the villagers reported losing land to the plantation, often because they only held rights through custom, not official deeds recognised by government ministries. One village elder said of land with trees his ancestors had grown: I feel like it is not fair to give the land to the company, but then we dont have any proof of the ownership but the trees.
The main point is really the mismatch between the framing of sustainable development on the one side and whats happening on the ground on the other, says Fenna Otten at the University of Gottingen, Germany, who visited the village at the end of 2017.
She says the project wasn’t entirely negative. Villagers reported that the plantation had created jobs, and one person was excited by the prospect of being trained in rubber tapping. Some of the women working for the plantation were pleased to be paid cash in hand. Others said the economic impact was mixed. One villager said: The village economy did not change significantly, sometimes the situation is better, sometimes it is worse.
In a statement, Michelin said the project was very important to Michelin and to all its stakeholders and it regretted the researchers hadn’t contacted the company.
WWF said it was an adviser on the project, but not involved in running it. Although we regret the authors of the report havent contacted us to verify the study, we shall discuss the findings with all those involved and call for them to urgently address any concerns raised by the local communities, a spokesperson says.
Journal reference: Journal of Land Use Science, DOI: 10.1080/1747423X.2019.1709225
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