Forest clearing for oil palm in Sumatra. Photo: Rhett Butler
The Mandarin Oriental hotel chain has landed in environmentalists’ crosshairs for the practices of its sister company Astra Agro Lestari, a rapidly expanding palm oil producer with fully developed plantations on an area larger than Singapore.
The new She’s Not a Fan campaign – a play off Mandarin’s celebrity-fan endorsement drive – launched yesterday with a petition calling on Astra to stop destroying forests and elephant habitat and follow industry titans in pledging to purge its supply chain of deforestation, peat conversion and rights abuses.
The campaign is spearheaded by Forest Heroes, a group that was instrumental in convincing Wlimar, the world’s largest palm oil corporation, to sign a prominent forest conservation policy in late 2013.
“Since late 2013 there has been a wave of sustainability policy improvements by major palm oil growers/traders,” reads an accompanying sustainability assessment of Astra Agro by Aidenvironment, an NGO, adding, “Astra has not been part of this wave.”
Both Mandarin and Astra are ultimately owned by Jardine Matheson, one of the 200 largest publicy traded companies in the world and controlled by the Scottish Keswick family.
“As Astra’s parent, Jardines could stop this destruction immediately, but has chosen to do nothing,” the campaign website reads. “Instead, it stands by and supports Astra’s environmental destruction.”
Forest clearing for oil palm in Indonesia’s Riau province on the island of Sumatra. Photo: Rhett A. Butler
The campaign hones in on Astra director Joko Supriono, who also chairs the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) and has frequently downplayed the industry’s impact on the country’s rainforests and wildlife.
Joko did not respond to a request to comment for this article, but he has called linking palm expansion to deforestation and orangutan deaths “irrelevant” and portrayed forest campaigners as agents of the Western soybean oil and rapeseed industries, which he says are threatened by palm oil’s rise.
“GAPKI is very influential with the Indonesian government, and is said to have had direct influence on terms of the original moratorium on new licenses on peat and primary forest in 2011, ensuring that a weaker version was passed,” according to Aidenvironment.
She’s Not a Fan quotes “an executive with a major palm oil company” as saying Joko “is the single biggest obstacle to progress by the Indonesian government.”
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, meanwhile, has pledged to prevent further destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands and rainforests. “It must be stopped, we mustn’t allow our tropical rainforest to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm,” he said last year.
Since 2007, Astra has cleared more than 14,000 hectares of rainforest, and it has destroyed 27,000 hectares of peat since 2009, according to the campaign.
Its other offenses are said to include encroaching on elephant habitat in Aceh, where it plans to build a palm oil mill; draining carbon-rich peatland and causing annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 830,000 cars; instigating land disputes with local communities and indigenous peoples, such as the Orang Rimba in Sumatra; failing to optimally prevent and respond to fires in its concessions; and more.
The campaign also points out that Astra is the biggest private firm to abstain from membership in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the sector’s largest voluntary certification scheme.
Norway’s pension fund divested from the company in 2011, citing environmental concerns.
“Staying at the Mandarin Oriental sends profits to one of the most environmentally destructive corporations on the planet,” Forest Heroes director Deborah Lapidus said. “Mandarin Oriental’s chairman Ben Keswick needs to stop his company’s destruction of forests and elephant habitat.”
On Wednesday, May 20, a Jardine Matheson representative sent Mongabay the following statement:
“Jardine Matheson supports the sustainability policies of all of its companies, and believes that Astra Agro Lestari’s (AAL’s) sustainability practices are among the best in the industry. We understand that AAL has welcomed the new Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) initiative and is actively working towards signing up, and they are engaging with the key stakeholders about this. For further details on AAL’s commitment to IPOP, we refer you to their statement at the following link: http://www.astra-agro.co.id/index.php/sustainabilityaenvironment.”
The IPOP is a high-profile, joint sustainability pact by palm oil giants Wilmar, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources, Asian Agri and Musim Mas and the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin).
The Jardine representative also said that Astra “does not have plans to open a palm oil mill in Sampoiniet.” The She’s Not a Fan website cites a media report that Astra plans to open a mill this year in Sampoiniet, Aceh, where endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers live.