Conservation news

Indonesian palm oil giant joins no-deforestation pledge amid criticism from politicians

Illegal encroachment for palm oil production in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Illegal encroachment for palm oil production in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Astra Agro Lestari is the sixth company to join the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge.
  • The company was targeted by environmentalists before it promised to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain last year.
  • Some Indonesian politicians continue to slam the zero-deforestation trend as an affront to the country’s sovereignty and a danger to small farmers.

Indonesia’s second-largest palm oil producer has officially signed on to a pledge whose signatories promise to purge their supply chains of deforestation, peatlands conversion and rights abuses.

The company, Astra Agro Lestari, joins industry titans Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources, Musim Mas, Asian Agri and Cargill, who together control most of the refining capacity for Indonesian palm oil.

The other signatory is the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is important because IPOP also includes a commitment to lobby the government to bring the standards of the law in line with those of the pledge. Indonesian law only protects certain types of forest.

Astra’s about-face is a “huge breakthrough” because its director, Joko Supriono, chairs the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, a powerful lobby that has derided efforts to impose stricter environmental standards on the industry, according to Azmi Sirajuddin of Yayasan Merah Putih, a community organization in Sulawesi that has been working with other Indonesian groups to improve Astra’s practices.

Piles of oil palm fruit in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

“Even the Indonesian palm oil industry leaders who were previously most skeptical of conservation are calling on the government to launch a major push for forests and community rights,” Sirajuddin said in a statement on Wednesday.

Supriyono was called the “single biggest obstacle to progress by the Indonesian government” on the palm oil issue by the She’s Not a Fan campaign, which launched last year to shine light on Astra’s destructive practices. Not long after that, Astra announced its own zero-deforestation commitment, and promised to join IPOP.

“Astra…has a lot of power over the fate of Indonesia’s forests,” said Deborah Lapidus, spokesperson for the Washington-based Center for International Policy, which operates a program to halt tropical deforestation. “Astra joining IPOP is an important signal that it is ready to use its power for good.”

Some in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration have condemned IPOP, saying it hurts farmers, usurps the government’s authority and might constitute a cartel dominated by foreign interests. The latest repudiation came at an event on Wednesday at which the agriculture ministry’s plantations chief, Gamal Nasir, called for IPOP’s disbandment. “If this agreement is implemented, it’s farmers who will be affected,” he said. “Don’t torment farmers,” he added.

Lawmaker Firman Soebagyo asserted that IPOP violates the constitution, which says Indonesia’s resources must be used for the prosperity of the people. “Imagine if people who have been dependent on palm oil suddenly cannot sell – there would be chaos,” he argued on Wednesday.

An oil palm plantation in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Such opposition might be less about small farmers than protecting the interests of larger players who want to keep converting Indonesia’s forests into oil palm – especially in Papua, widely seen as the final frontier for an agribusiness sector that has already established itself in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

A palm oil executive whose company has committed to zero deforestation recently told Mongabay that “it’s never been about smallholders. ‘Smallholders’ is only being used. Because the real smallholders, they don’t have the capacity to open forests in Papua. How can they open up in Papua? They cannot even afford the tickets to Papua. So it’s the companies. And those companies, those rogue companies, have access to the government, have access to all kinds of things.”