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Green groups may call for boycott of Indonesian palm oil over forest destruction in Sumatra

Sumatran orangutan.
Sumatran orangutan. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Environmental groups are escalating their battle over an area of peat forest in Tripa, Sumatra that has been granted for oil palm plantations.

The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), an initiative run jointly by the Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari and the PanEco Foundation, says that unless the government suspends the contested plantation permits and prosecutes the “rogue companies” operating in the area, it will push for a suspension of Norway’s billion dollar aid package for Indonesia’s forests and a global moratorium on Indonesian palm oil that hasn’t been certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). SCOP is also demanding international rejection of the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification scheme, which compels Indonesian palm oil companies to abide by Indonesian laws. SCOP says ISPO certification clearly falls short if it includes PT Kallista Alam, which it says is illegally clearing deep peat and protected forest in Tripa.

SOCP is calling upon the Indonesian government to suspend plantation development — including forest clearing and drainage of peat lands — in Tripa and “a comprehensive and transparent investigation of all environmental and administrative crimes perpetrated in the Tripa Peat Swamps.”

The demands come just days after Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf admitted that he granted the permit as a stunt to raise awareness of the lack of financial support for forest conservation in Aceh. The governor has been a staunch supporter of the Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force, which aims to create interim financial incentives between states and provinces in rich and tropical nations ahead of the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) program. But progress on REDD+ has been slow-going and funds remain only a fraction of levels projected five years ago.

“The international community think our forest is a free toilet for their carbon,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Every day they are saying they want clean air and to protect forests…but they want to inhale our clean air without paying anything.”

Irwandi also asserted that no orangutans have been harmed during conversion of Tripa’s peat forest. SCOP disputed that point: “The former Governor has been informed on numerous occasions of the presence of an important Orangutan population in the Tripa peat swamp forests.”

Tripa peat swamp.

The location of the Tripa peat swamps (circled) on the west coast of Aceh province, northern Sumatra, showing rivers, forest cover in 1990, peat, and district boundaries. Tripa is the site of a controversial new oil palm plantation that has could put Aceh’s governor in prison. Image courtesy of Tim Koalisi Penyelematan Rawa Tripa, a coalition of community groups seeking legal action against the governor.

Biological surveys in the 1990s showed that Tripa once contained some of the highest densities of Sumatran orangutans in the world, which are considered critically endangered due to habitat loss. But the population has rapidly declined as the areas peat forests have been drained and cleared for oil palm plantations. SCOP estimates that less than 300 of the red apes now remain in Tripa, and an estimated 7,000 in Sumatra in total.

SCOP has not been alone in its campaign. WAHLI, a coalition of Indonesian environmental groups, has led the legal charge against conversion of Tripa’s forests. Last year it filed suit against PT Kallista Alam and Irwandi, alleging the permit granted by the governor violated Tripa’s protected area status as part of the Leuser Ecosystem, broke multiple moratoriums on peatlands destruction, and ran roughshod over the rights of local communities, which depend on the forest for water and small-scale forest products.

Tripa peat swamp.

The 2 original concession areas of PT Kallista Alam (shown in pink hatching) and “new” concession (in red) in the Tripa peat swamps, on a 2006 satellite. Images and captions contained in Tripa Truths, a report produced for Tim Koalisi Penyelematan Rawa Tripa.

Meanwhile the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN) recently linked the developments in Tripa to its campaign to get agribusiness giant Cargill to adopt stricter safeguards for its palm oil sourcing. The activist group issued a statement last week noting that Cargill purchased palm oil from PT Kallista Alam’s parent company Astra, which is one of Indonesia’s largest companies.

Cargill immediately denied sourcing palm oil from PT Kallista Alam and said that it “is committed to sourcing its palm oil products responsibly.”

“Last year, 94% of the of the crude palm oil Cargill sourced from Indonesia oil palm plantations was from RSPO members,” a Cargill spokesperson told “Cargill continues to work with oil palm smallholders to help them sustainably increase their yields and move towards RSPO certification.”

But RAN said Cargill isn’t doing enough to ensure its palm oil isn’t sourced from places like Tripa.

“RSPO membership does not ensure that any RSPO criteria are being met at the plantation level since the only major criteria to meet in the first 5 years is consistent dues payment,” RAN Forest Campaigner Lindsey Allen told “Even certification does not ensure that companies are not expanding on peat given the lack of greenhouse gas emissions criteria.”

“Cargill fails to have safeguards on the palm oil they trade that would ensure to customers they are not sourcing from Tripa.”

The group is asking Cargill to adopt “a comprehensive set of safeguards on the palm oil they trade” and be “open and transparent” about the companies that supply it with palm oil.

“Will Cargill adopt safeguards on the palm oil they trade to guarantee that they are not profiting from situations like Tripa across Indonesia and Malaysia?” asked Allen.

Sumatra’s rainforests and peatlands have been rapidly destroyed in recent decades. During the 1990s the island lost 3.7 million hectares, mostly a consequence of agricultural expansion, pulp and paper plantations, and palm oil production. Sumatra is the last refuge for several charismatic and highly endangered species, including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans. Deforestation and associated forest fires have at times cast a pall over neighboring countries — especially Singapore — and released millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

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