Southeast Asia: Agribusiness snapshot
The Southeast Asian region is among the most productive in the world in terms of agriculture. The sector has a significant impact on the region’s economy, substantially contributing to the GDPs of Indonesia (35%), Philippines (30%), Thailand (25%) and Vietnam (26%). However, the sector is fraught with human rights risks, which are given insufficient attention by businesses and investors.
We reviewed our archive of material connected with human rights impacts and issues linked to the agricultural sector in Southeast Asia — particularly palm oil, bananas, timber, and agriculture and livestock — over the last five years, based on publicly available sources. We found that the majority of reports relate to: (1) attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs); (2) irresponsible use of farm products that harm communities’ health and the environment; (3) violation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, particularly their right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC); and (4) exploitation of women in the palm oil industry.
This briefing is not a comprehensive examination of the human rights impacts of agribusiness in Southeast Asia. Rather, it is intended to provide a snapshot of the sector using case studies from 2018 to 2023, and to make recommendations to companies and investors to inform decisions to address the human rights risks associated with the sector.
Attacks on human rights defenders
Human rights defenders (HRDs) in Southeast Asia play a crucial role in protecting the environment, championing rights-respecting societies and ensuring a just transition to green economies. Despite occupying a mere 3% of the world’s land area, Southeast Asia hosts almost 20% of all known species of the world, 5% of the world’s forests, and one-third of the world’s coastal and marine habitats. Yet, people defending labour, land and environmental rights across the region often experience strong backlash by both state and non-state actors and face high levels of violence and repression, including smear campaigns and “red tagging”, labelling them as anti-development, terrorists or communists as a means to discredit their legitimate human rights work.
Between January 2015 – September 2023, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) tracked more than 4,800 attacks against HRDs raising concerns about business-related human rights and environmental harms worldwide. Nearly 1,000 of these attacks were against defenders in Southeast Asia, and 343 of these related specifically to the agricultural sector. These attacks include intimidation and threats, physical violence, killings and judicial harassment, among others. Judicial harassment (including arbitrary detention, unfair trials and strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPPs) constituted 55% of attacks related to agribusiness in the region. Nearly one in four attacks recorded (22%) were killings.
On 30 November 2022, peasant organiser Joseph Jimenez and poet, journalist, musician, and human rights activist Ericson Acosta were captured by the Philippine Army and killed. At the time of the attack, the defenders were unarmed and were conducting research in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental, consulting farmers on their living and working conditions. The area is affected by centuries-long conflicts and local farmers are facing displacement and other issues affecting their livelihoods due to land seizures by hacienda owners (large farm enterprises).
The majority of attacks against defenders related to agribusiness in the region occurred in Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. As many attacks involve collusion between state, private sector and other non-state actors in contexts with high levels of impunity, perpetrators are often difficult to identify. In cases where attacks could be connected with a specific company or a business project, nearly all are companies headquartered in the region.
Our data represents just the tip of the iceberg. As the Resource Centre’s research is based on publicly available information and many attacks, especially non-lethal attacks (including death threats, judicial harassment and physical violence), never make it to media sources - and there is a significant gap in government monitoring of attacks - the problem is even more severe than these figures indicate.
SLAPPs, which masquerade as legitimate lawsuits and are frequently initiated by a private party (such as a company, owner of a company, or employees at a company) against people and groups for exercising their rights to participate in, comment on or criticise matters of public concern, are a particularly pernicious form of attack. As well as diverting defenders' time away from human rights work, SLAPPs have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression, both by the defendant at issue and often for others wishing to speak out against abuse. Like other non-lethal forms of attacks against human rights defenders, SLAPPs can also precede fatal violence or be accompanied by other forms of intimidation.
Between January 2015 and September 2023, the Resource Centre identified 439 lawsuits worldwide that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs, brought or initiated by 144 business actors. One in five of these cases occurred in Southeast Asia, including numerous lawsuits brought by Thai poultry company Thammakaset Co. Ltd., which previously supplied to major Thai food company Betagro.
In 2016, 14 migrant workers from Myanmar filed a lawsuit against Thammakaset and Betagro. The workers made allegations of forced labour, restrictions on movement, passport confiscation, unlawful salary reductions and 22-hour work shifts. While Betagro decided to stop “business operations with the farm until there is a solution for the labour conflict”, Thammakaset filed numerous defamation complaints against former workers, journalists and activists for either raising awareness about the labour abuse they had suffered or for speaking in support of the labourers.
One lawsuit bearing the hallmarks of a SLAPP brought by Thammakaset was filed against Angkhana Neelapaijit, former commissioner of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission. Thammakaset alleged that Neelapaijit violated articles 326 (defamation) and 328 (libel) of Thailand’s Criminal Code by posting two tweets in support of other HRDs facing lawsuits by the company. Thammakaset sought approximately US$6,000 (200,000 Thai Baht) per count in compensation, a sentence of up to two years in prison for alleged damage to the company’s reputation, and a public apology to be posted in five newspapers. Angkhana Neelapaijit faced a total of four counts through the two cases brought by the company. In August 2023, the Bangkok South Criminal Court found Angkhana Neelapaijit, along with two other defendants, not guilty of criminally defaming Thammakaset.
In June 2021 the Resource Centre invited Thammakaset to respond to allegedly filing lawsuits that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs; the company did not respond to our request.
Environmental & public health harms
Southeast Asia is a major hub for agribusiness and cash crops such as banana and palm oil. The Philippines continues to be the top exporter of bananas in Asia, followed by Vietnam and Cambodia, while Indonesia and Malaysia account for over 85% of global palm oil exports. The operation of plantations, particularly banana and palm oil farms, have caused adverse impacts to the environment and local residents’ health across the region.
While not yet on par with the Philippines, Vietnam or Cambodia as top banana exporters, Laos is steadily increasing its banana exports, making bananas one of the top agricultural products exported in 2022. Banana plantations in Bokeo province in northern Laos provide US$100 million in annual exports and make up 95% of Bokeo’s exports. While these banana plantations have created job opportunities for local residents, working conditions are considered unsafe, as workers are allegedly exposed to toxic chemicals in banana cultivation. Moreover, residents say that banana plantations have generated pollution and the release of chemicals into nearby rivers and creeks has resulted in severe rashes and skin disorders in residents. Further, banana plantations in Laos have allegedly harmed the livelihoods of local community members. Myanmar Times reported that local people “believed the use of tissue culture method to grow bananas has led to the death of livestock and losses to farmers due to the chemicals it uses.”
In Indonesia, on the other hand, toxic haze and forest fires may be partly attributed to palm oil concessions, causing short and long-term damage to human lives.
In November 2020, Eco-Business reported that palm oil company Korindo used fire to clear lands which resulted in damage to people’s health and the environment. The report quoted Korindo’s sustainability page stating the company “has never used and will never use fire to clear land in any of its operations.” The report further stated that Korindo told the BBC that the fires in its concessions were either natural fires caused by extreme dryness or started by “villagers hunting giant wild rats hiding under stacks of wood.”
Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights
Southeast Asia is home to 90 to 125 million Indigenous Peoples who reside on around 81.7 million hectares of the region’s land. Their deep connection to their home environment situates them at the forefront of “combatting climate change and enhancing environmental sustainability”. Drawing upon thousands of years of expertise in environmental stewardship, Indigenous Peoples are vital leaders in the fight to protect our planet. They are also among the first groups to experience the direct consequences of climate change, despite having contributed very little to its causes. Ensuring the effective participation of Indigenous Peoples in climate actions has been detailed in numerous international agreements, including the Paris Agreement.
In Malaysia, Indigenous communities in Sarawak alleged Malaysian timber company Samling encroached on community land, withheld key documents about the certification process, failed to obtain FPIC and threatened Indigenous communities with legal action. In a response to the Resource Centre’s invitation to respond to the allegations, Samling said it has not threatened to take legal action against Indigenous communities. Samling further stated it had fully complied with the requirements of the Malaysian Timber Certification Council.
SAVE Rivers, a civil society organisation that works with rural communities to protect their lands, rivers, and watersheds, alleged that the concession issued in favour of Samling was acquired without due process and therefore in violation of Indigenous communities’ rights. On 21 June 2021, Samling filed a defamation lawsuit against SAVE Rivers and its directors for publishing allegedly defamatory statements. The Resource Centre invited Samling to respond to the allegation that the lawsuit it filed bears the hallmarks of a SLAPP. Samling responded saying, “It is our contention that the allegations made by SAVE Rivers in articles carried in their official website beginning 23 June 2020, formed an incorrect and unfairly negative impression that Samling Group did not consult with local communities in the certification process... [and] the suit filed against SAVE Rivers was not in any way an attempt to prevent or hinder public participation in the certification process of our Forest Management Units. The Borneo Project, a NGO that supports community-led efforts to defend forests, sustainable livelihoods, and human rights, submitted a rejoinder saying, “Our coalition of organisations has, from the beginning, outlined clear solutions to the failures in the certification process of the concessions… Instead of engaging with these solutions, Samling is threatening a local NGO with legal action.”
On 18 September 2023, two years after Samling filed the lawsuit and the day the trial was set to begin, a last-minute settlement was reached and the company dropped the case. Meenakshi Raman, President of Sahabat Alam Malaysia – Friends of the Earth Malaysia, commented on the closure of the case: “The withdrawal of this lawsuit by Samling shows that people power reigns and corporations should think twice before filing any vexatious lawsuits against environmental defenders. The aim should not be to silence critics but to work towards ensuring that people and the environment are always above profits.”
Despite Indigenous Peoples’ critical role, their lands are increasingly encroached upon, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. The chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Anne Nuorgam attributes this encroachment to “resource extraction, logging, land for renewable energy sources and agribusiness.”
In Laos, the 2020 report of the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) of Switzerland’s University of Bern found that roughly 50% of Laos’ territory was granted to investors. These lands are mainly used in the mining sector and agribusiness (especially for rubber and eucalyptus plantations), displacing a large population of Hmong ethnic minority groups and cutting them off from the forests that traditionally provided them food.
Two-thirds of the rainforest in North and East Kalimantan, which are some of the last intact rainforests in Indonesia, are at risk of destruction due to commercial activity, prompting an Indigenous group of Dayak Bahau of Long Isun to demand that their forests be recognised as customary lands.
A 2023 report by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) “Keep Forests Standing: How Local Community Resistance is Saving the Last Rainforests of Borneo” said the Indigenous group of Dayak Bahau of Long Isun is at risk of losing their forest lands due to the operations of timber companies allegedly controlled by the Harita Group. Harita responded to RAN, attributing the situation to boundary disputes between communities. Harita said it conducted “consultations with a wide stakeholder audience, working with contracted Indigenous community experts, to ensure that all local concerns are identified and addressed before any development is done.” RAN urged Procter & Gamble, Mondeléz, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive, Nissin Foods, PepsiCo, Unilever and Itochu Kenzai Corporation (all of which sourced palm oil from mills controlled by Harita) to engage with Harita to ensure the two forestry companies do not encroach on the customary forests of the Long Isun.
The Resource Centre invited these companies to respond to RAN’s call to action. In its response, Nestlé stated that pulp and paper from the forestry companies controlled by Harita do not enter Nestlé’s supply chain. Nissin Foods said it has initiated an investigation based on the report. Unilever also responded stating it has no direct business with the timber companies but may be linked to Bumitama, one of the timber companies cited in the RAN report, through trade. For its part, Mondelēz International said that upon knowledge of the report, it has logged the case in its grievance tracker. Itochu, on the other hand, said that it has “completely” no dealings with Harita. Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble did not respond.
Violation of women’s rights
According to the ILO, as cited in the 2022 report titled Harvesting Inequality, over 99% of the agricultural employment in Southeast Asia is informal, with women over-represented in the informal workforce. Specifically in the palm oil industry in Indonesia, “women play a central role […] as workers, smallholder producers and community members. Yet, the dynamics of the sector render women practically invisible.” The report notes that “[b]ecause women in these employment arrangements have little to no legal protection and are often hired to perform tasks generally perceived as low-skilled, their wages are often significantly lower than those of men and they often do not enjoy job security, employment benefits or social security.” Worse, women workers are subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
In 2020, the Associated Press (AP) conducted an investigation on the brutal treatment of women in the production of palm oil, including physical and sexual abuse and exposure to harmful chemicals in Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil plantations. The report alleges that palm oil from such plantations flows into the supply chains of Avon, Cargill, Clorox, Colgate-Palmolive, Coty, Estée Lauder, Johnson & Johnson, Kylie Cosmetics, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Unilever.
Further, the investigation found that women in the industry are subjected to sexual abuse, relegated to the most difficult and dangerous jobs, and exploited as a "cheap" workforce. As casual workers, women are subjected to precarious work and are afforded no social security and inadequate respect for their rights.
The brands were invited by the Resource Centre to respond to the allegations in the AP investigation: Cargill responded to say the company does not tolerate human trafficking, forced labour or child labour. Clorox stated it was working with third parties like the Earthworm Foundation to trace palm oil ingredients in their supply chains. Unilever said they suspended two suppliers mentioned in the report, London Sumatra and Felda, in 2018. FGV Holdings responded that although Felda (palm oil company cited in the AP investigation) is the majority shareholder of FGV, FGV’s governance and management remain independent. L’Oréal said it will investigate the matter further with its local NGO partners. Estée Lauder, Coty, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson said their supply chain policy adheres to RSPO standards while Procter & Gamble said that the company follows the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs). Colgate-Palmolive, Kylie Cosmetics, London Sumatra, and Sime Darby did not respond.
In light of the issues raised in this briefing, businesses in the agricultural sector in Southeast Asia should:
- Adopt and implement policy commitments which recognise the valuable role of human rights defenders, ensuring effective engagement and consultation with defenders at all stages of the due diligence process, and commit to zero-tolerance for reprisals throughout the company’s operations, supply chains and business relationships.
- Engage in and report on the results of human rights and environmental due diligence that integrates a gender perspective throughout and adequately addresses varying impacts on women, as well as ensures effective access to remedy for those harmed by business activity, in accordance with the UNGPs, the UN Working Group’s guidance on ensuring respect for defenders, and the UN Working Group’s gender guidance.
- Recognise that Indigenous defenders are disproportionately at risk and respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights, grounded in their rights to self-determination; lands, territories and resources; and FPIC, including their right to define the process by which FPIC is achieved and to withhold consent.